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.

Achieve Definition

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.”

Identify Candidates

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

I did some contracting when I was in college, and I discovered that if I got three different bids from competent people, I’d get three different opinions on how best to tackle the project at hand. Often I got three widely different bids. In the process, I discovered the best cost/value proposition so I could make an informed buying decision.

You can select the best vendor of the three and modify your job requirements to include ideas from the rejected vendors. If none of the three really feels right even though they seem to fit your written profile, refine the profile and continue to interview qualified candidates.

Once you have identified one contender who can meet your written criteria and whom you feel good about, go on to the next step.

Check References

Now you need to talk with people who have worked with the person or organization in the past. I like to interview about three to five references. I ask them about their experiences with the vendor, and I listen to see if they volunteer information about the things I think are most important.

For example, I like to ask questions such as, “What do you see as their strong points?” “Would you recommend them?” “If you had a magic wand, what would you change about them?” And I also ask, “Do you have any tips about working effectively with them?”

Some people will not talk candidly. If they don’t rave about the vendor, it’s a bad sign. Usually, if they have good things to say, they will be glad to talk to you, so be cautious if you don’t hear lots of positive comments. Remember, you are looking for phenomenal vendors, and phenomenal vendors should have tons of happy clients.

Develop a Test Project

The next step is to start doing some business with your selected vendor. Maybe you are working on something right now that is different than what you have done in the past, and you want to have somebody new handle it. Or maybe you have a problem that the old vendor couldn’t fix. Give the new vendor a small project that is not critical to your core business, and see how well the vendor handles it. If the vendor does well, the project will be on time and on budget, and you and your team will say to yourselves, “That was so much easier and more fun than with the other vendor.”

Learn More

Good vendors often have deeper, richer capabilities than you initially comprehend, and there may be more to your new vendor than meets the eye. After all, they didn’t get to be at the top of their game overnight. If you pick carefully, you will discover over time a depth of resources beyond your expectations. Through experience, you’ll learn how to get even more out of your top vendors. Soon you will be eager to hand over all of your business to them.

Transfer All Your Business

Once you identify a vendor that you prefer to your current one–you feel confident that the whole system is working and these people are doing a great job–it’s time to transfer your business. In an ideal world, we would only have one vendor for each business service we use.

Your new partnership shouldn’t be a static one, however. You will continue to evolve, and they will, too. If you’ve chosen well, your alliance will be positive for both parties. The new vendor will make your life easier, enhance your competitiveness, and allow you to focus on what you do best.

By following these simple steps, you can create an organized process for finding and hiring phenomenal vendors on purpose. Over the last 18 months, I have applied these processes to every one of my major vendors. I have upgraded my Web site team, cell service, attorney, and network systems engineers. In addition, we are finalizing our phone service upgrade in the next two weeks.

As for that accountant we had … I’m pleased to report that our new accounting firm is fast, accurate, and extremely helpful. The firm is a pleasure to work with, has lifted a burden off my shoulders, and added positive energy to our team. Remember, if all of your vendors are phenomenal, chances are your business will be, too.

Steve Moeller is president of American Business Visions and author of Effort-Less Marketing for Financial Advisors. Call American Business Visions at 800-678-1701, or visit www.businessvisions.com.