Part 2: Nine Tips for Hiring Engineering Consultants

November 17, 2015

By James R. Hegarty, PE

Have you ever been disappointed with an engineering firm’s work? Did it ever occur to you that your hiring process might have unwittingly set your project up for failure from the start?  Jim Hegarty, engineer and business development specialist, has gathered some tips for hiring engineering consultants in this second installment of a two-part series.

Click here for part one of this series.

 

6: Meet with prospective firms individually.

Transparency and fairness are fine qualities, but they do not always help you get the most out of your proposal process. While pre-proposal meetings may appear to be an efficient way to share information with a large number of firms, they are not an effective way for you to improve the quality of the proposals you receive. Group settings like this seriously stifle creativity because most proposers have no interest in sharing their insightful questions with their competitors. If you’re interested in receiving quality proposals, you need to meet with each serious firm face-to-face. This is the engineering professional’s diagnostic opportunity to really understand your needs and respond with valuable solutions to them.

I’ve noticed that clients often ask all firms to submit questions in writing so they can share the question and answer with all firms in an addendum. Thought this is efficient and may make your job easier, it does not make for better proposals. You need to be willing to meet individually with each firm, allowing a free exchange of questions, thoughts and ideas, so you can get the maximum benefit out of the proposals you receive.

The proposal process is all about getting the best for your community.

7: Price proposals: you lose.

While it may sound self-serving for an engineer to say that the selection of professional service providers based on price is inadvisable, I’ll say it. Price proposals are a bad idea. The popular claim “When banks compete, you win!” is opposite for engineering services.When engineers compete on price, you lose.

Why? While engineering fees are a small fraction of a project’s overall cost, engineering decisions not only influence a project’s initial cost; they also affect your overall, long-term cost of ownership. Price-based selections often result in what I call “hit-and-run” engineering.

Here is an example how low-cost engineering decision can affect a project’s cost. A client asked us for a proposal to design a pedestrian bridge over a creek. The owner had two options: evaluate the existing vehicle bridge’s capability to “hang” a pedestrian bridge off one side, or design a freestanding bridge. The design fees for a freestanding bridge are modest if you decide to use a pre-engineered, pre-fabricated bridge. Conversely, the design effort to evaluate the effect of additional loads and width to an existing bridge is far more involved and costly. When design cost drives your decision, you end up with a freestanding bridge because it is easier to design. Unfortunately, it may cost you twice as much to build the freestanding bridge. While you set out to save money in your engineering fee, you ended up spending more on the project. You lose.

Ideally, you want your engineer to keep your best interests in mind, but by placing an undue emphasis on design costs, you may actually end up paying far more than you should. The only way to lower engineering fees is to cut back on time spent in design and/or the experience level of the designer. You deserve better.

8: Check the references for the unvarnished truth.

You have digested a stack of proposals. You have scored them and settled on the top two or three. They all look great on paper. Why bother checking references? Because sometimes what is left unwritten is louder than what is written.

I am surprised how often communities do not check references, especially on price-based selections. Your reference checks should focus on the project manager and key technical team members. And, don’t just call the people listed in their proposal. Call your colleagues in other communities. Google the project manager to see where else they have worked, and contact those communities. Read the news articles in the Google search results. What you learn may validate your impressions, but it also can surprise you. It is well worth the few minutes it takes to check and verify references.

9: Experience matters!

Inexperience can cost you dearly. A good engineer wants to spend as little of a client’s money as possible developing a potential solution before discovering it is not feasible. Experience shortens this process. Here are two examples to illustrate:

  • One Michigan community spent $80,000 on engineering for a sewer project around a lake before developing a cost estimate for potential customers. When customers learned the cost, they killed the project, and the community was out $80,000. They could have gotten a reliable cost estimate for $5,000, but the engineer’s approach of developing detailed information only postponed the inevitable at a significant cost to the community.
  • Another community, searching for a new site for a drinking water well, invested $50,000 drilling a test well before it learned that the local water quality was poor. They could have learned that in the first $1,000 they spent by checking local well records, but the project work plan was poorly devised.

You deserve better. The best way to hire an engineer, or any other professional services firm for that matter, is by using the Qualifications-Based-Selection (QBS) process, in which you evaluate firms on their qualifications, and negotiate a fair scope and price of work with the most qualified firm. You can learn more at the Michigan QBS website: http://www.qbs-mi.org/

 

 


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