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Nine Tips for Hiring Engineering Consultants

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.


1: Invite a quality list of firms to submit proposals.

When you are hunting for the perfect engineering consultant for your project, it’s better to hunt with a rifle than a shotgun, or fish with a pole instead of a net. Sending your RFP/Q to every possible firm says that that you are willing to work with anybody. It will also get you stacks and stacks of proposals to evaluate.

The most qualified firms often do not spend their time and money to respond to these “shotgun” RFP/Qs, leaving you with a less-than-optimal pool of respondents. Do your homework first. You know one or more firms that do the type of work you are planning. You may also know one or two firms that you can eliminate. If you want to invite a quality list of firms, ask people you trust in other communities who they would recommend inviting for a particular type of project. You will save yourself a lot of time and get better results for your community.


2: Answer these eight questions in your RFP…every time.

Over the last 20 years, I have responded to hundreds of requests for proposals and qualifications (RFP/Qs) issued by communities. Unfortunately, I have seen many examples where a well-intentioned community short-changed itself with a poorly conceived RFP/Q. Every RFP/Q should provide this basic information:

  1. Due date and time.
  2. Delivery address.
  3. Person to whom the RFP response should be delivered.
  4. Number of copies needed. Have you considered receiving these in digital form (pdf)?
  5. Describe your proposed project and your expectations for it.
  6. Identify the information you want included in responses, in the order you prefer.
  7. Who is available to answer technical questions? Administrative questions?
  8. Outline your review and selection schedule.


3: Expect these seven questions from serious proposers.

Serious respondents always ask these questions, and you may as well answer as many of them as you can in your RFP/Q.

  • What is your selection criteria and weighting?
  • Who else received your RFP/Q?
  • Who will review the RFP/Q responses?
  • What have you budgeted for the professional fees? Ensuing project?
  • Is additional information about the project available? Studies, maps, surveys, etc.?
  • When will you make your selection decision?
  • Can we meet with you prior to the due date to discuss the project in greater detail?

The more transparent your process, the more willing you are to share information and meet with interested firms, the better responses you can expect. The best firms are selective on the work they pursue, so withholding information or shielding yourself from meaningful engagement are “red flags” that may convince a qualified firm to “pass” on your RFP.


4: Be careful what you ask for in your RFP.

When you evaluate a firm’s response to your RFP, you want to see relevant information. But, be careful what you ask for! Reading a stack of engineering proposals can be a mind-numbing task. Avoid asking for information that does not directly relate to your needs. Focus on three areas:

  1. The Project Manager: Assuming you have invited responses from firms with good reputations, the most critical element in every project is the proposed project manager. Ask to see relevant information about his or her experience with the specific type of project you are planning. This is the person with whom you and your community will interact during the project, so it’s critical to know as much as you can about him or her.
  2. The Work Plan: A written work plan is the consultant’s opportunity to share with you the process they will use to design your project, and to describe any unique approaches or ideas they will apply to it. The work plan both reveals the proposers’ enthusiasm for your project and their level of preparation for and understanding of your needs.
  3. References: This is especially important for your project manager. The materials you receive in proposals merely reflect a firm’s style. Reference checks will reveal true substance if your project manager has it.


5: Read between the proposal’s lines.

When you evaluate a firm’s response to your RFP, you want to see relevant information. Sometimes you need a snow shovel to find it. Were the relevant projects in the firm’s experience portfolio just like your proposed project? If they were, did your proposed project manager design/manage them? Is the project manager used to working with and leading other technical team members? Connect the dots. If you cannot answer “yes” to either of these questions, keep looking. These are red flags.

Look at the project manager’s work history. How long has he or she been with this firm? Other firms? Ask another community about their bad experiences: changing project managers in the middle of a project will rank near the top of their list. Has the proposed project manager actually managed this type of project before? Been the design leader on similar projects? Or just a team member? Read their resume and their relevant project summaries carefully. Make sure their role on example projects is the same as their proposed role on your project. (If your selection process includes an interview, insist that the project manager lead the interview. Since this is the person who will lead your project and interact with you and your public during it, why allow someone else who is a “smooth talker” dominate the interview? You may never see that person again. There is only one person with whom you will interact regularly; the project manager. Make sure the project manager has the experience you need.)

Are some of the cited relevant projects from an employee’s work at another firm? If so, is that person’s role clear? Is the project credited properly to the other firm? Similarly, is there someone on the project team who has relevant experience, but does not appear to play a key role other than “advisor?”

Read the technical team’s qualifications carefully, too. How deep is this team’s experience? Has this same team done this type of work before? Does someone other than the project manager have most or all of the experience with this type of project? Why is that person not leading your team? If not, will that person have a significant role on your project, or is their resume included as window dressing? If some of the team’s work experience is from other firms or past employers, is that information properly attributed? It’s important to read resumes and project histories carefully to discern your proposed team’s actual experience. If the written materials are not crystal clear as to a person’s role on past projects, assume nothing. Ask!


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.


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:

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