When I first started my business, I hired an accountant who had an extremely competent bookkeeper. Working with this bookkeeper was always a pleasure. Unfortunately, when she left his firm, the accountant hired a succession of incompetent replacements. Things went from bad to worse, and finally, I had to confront my accountant about my concerns. He responded by being defensive, angry, and accusatory.
I realized suddenly that he was the one who had to go: I didn’t need to be yelled at by someone I had hired. The problem was that I did not know who else to hire. I set out on a six-month journey to try to find the ideal CPA for my company. I finally found a phenomenal accounting firm by using a carefully considered, step-by-step selection process.
Commit to “Best of Breed”
The first thing you must realize is that in any marketplace of service providers, competency is distributed according to a bell curve: Most people are about average. There is always a hierarchy of competency, yet in the same general price range, you can hire people who are very competent or completely incompetent. Let’s assume that you only want to work with competent, caring people and companies in the top 5% of their fields.
When you work with “best of breed” people and companies, you will reduce your overall costs, have more flexibility, stay on the cutting edge in many critical areas, and streamline your processes to efficiently interface with your vendors. There are many benefits of picking your vendors carefully, but you have to commit to a process. The chances of consistently hiring phenomenal vendors by accident are very slim. It takes time and effort to find top people, but the rewards are incalculable. Once you assemble your team, you can provide top-notch service to your clients without overloading your internal resources.
Define what you need, and the universe will conspire to help you get it. I like to create “purpose hierarchies.” These are planning tools that help you define the scope of the relationship with each vendor. Start with the smallest purpose and identify various “bigger purposes” until you have listed the entire range of possible purposes for the relationship. Then decide where along that “purpose hierarchy,” or spectrum, you want to engage each vendor.
For instance: A small purpose for an accountant might be to help you prepare your taxes each year. A big purpose might be to become a partner with your firm and help you grow into a national company. Somewhere in the middle, there is a “sweet spot” that fits with your vision and current need.
Essentially, you need to determine how much you want the vendor to do, and how much you want to do. Who has the ultimate responsibility for each function? Define the scope and the purpose of each vendor. Put these decisions into writing for all to see. Make sure everyone on your team agrees.
Profile Your Ideal Vendors
Once you are clear on exactly what capabilities you need, the next step is to develop a clear profile of the ideal vendor for each service you purchase. Start by defining the size of the firm. When shopping for creative services, I usually like to work with the firms’ principals; when it comes to commodities like e-mail and computers, I seek out major national firms.
Next, define the “must haves” versus the “nice to haves.” A bit of preliminary research or experience will help you define what is available and what is the best solution for you. Think outside the box, let your mind go wild, and really think about what would be the ultimate win-win type of relationship for both you and the vendor. Create a prioritized list of four to 10 key “must haves.”
Once you know what you are looking for, the next step is to identify qualified candidates. Start beating the bushes and asking your business associates if they know anyone who fits the desired profile. Do some background research on the Internet. Take a look through the local Yellow Pages.
Generally, the very best way to find other professionals is through referrals. However, I caution you that I have been referred on many occasions to people that turned out to be the wrong choice. So don’t cop out on this important process. Do it right once, and you may never have to do it again.
As you identify candidates, you will gain additional information through your conversations with them. These early discussions will help you refine your profile and clarify the scope and purpose of the relationship you seek. This is a process of iteration, determining what fits by asking questions and gathering data. In most cases, you will see that a few companies stand out and appear to effectively meet, or even exceed, your initial screening criteria.
Interview Intervals of Three