11 Ways on How to Choose an Engineering Firm to Hire

How to choose an engineering firm? A lot more than you think goes into choosing the best engineering firm. The keyword is the “best.”

If you make the wrong choice, you may get lucky and just get average work in return. But if you’re unlucky, you’ll be in a world of pain.

That’s why I’m going to answer 11 questions on how to choose the best engineering firm.

I have experience from both the customer and the engineering firm side. This will provide you with a greater perspective and more data points.

In the end, the more data points you have at your fingertips, the better decision you can make.

Also, this discussion applies to finding and choosing firms in all engineering fields.

Let’s now get started!

#1 What services do they offer? 

You want to choose an engineering firm that can do exactly what you want. Thus, their core service aligns with your project’s scope of work.

If a firm says they can quickly learn to do your work even though they’ve never done a similar project, stay away. You’re not paying to educate others.

Also in engineering, the difficulties are in the last 1% of the design work. And to master this last 1% of design work, you need experience.

You don’t want to risk avoidable project problems by choosing an inexperienced firm.

So, find a firm whose bread and butter is what you need to have done.

Added tips for choosing an engineering firm 

Tip #1: request to see similar projects to yours they’ve worked on. Also, request references from their past customers. This includes active emails and phone numbers.

Make sure the similar projects are recently completed work. I’m talking about in the past 5 years. Otherwise, the engineers who did the work may be long gone.

Tip #2: for a firm’s offered services, make sure they do all the work in-house. Sometimes a firm will say they offer a service, but in fact, they’re outsourcing the work. They’re just the middleman.

#2 Will they take your project the full 9-yards?

engineers discussing construction matters

Are a firm’s offered services all done in-house? Or at the very least, they’ll only sub-contract out small parts of your project.

Also, if YOU outsource to multiple firms, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Your project can quickly turn into an engineering and management nightmare.

Unless of course, you have experience with engineering management. But still, do you really want to deal with engineering management, when you can be doing better things?

So, find a firm that has a depth of experience that suits your project. But also, they have a breadth of specialty skills. This combination is the recipe for the best results.

The firm will effortlessly coordinate all parties together on your behalf. As a result, your project will remain on schedule without any loss in quality.

Added tips for choosing an engineering firm 

Tip #1: ask the firm what portions of your work they’ll sub-contract out.

Tip #2: request a flow chart showing the firms that’ll work on your project. This will show all the sub-contractors under the prime contractor. You’ll then know all the players in your project.

Also, ask how many years of experience all the firms have in working together.

Tip #3: request a detailed preliminary project approach. You want to see how a firm will approach your design. At the same time, this is a great way to gauge a firm’s level of experience.

#3 What’s their level of relationships with other agencies and companies?

Relationships matter a lot. You want a firm that has relationships with all the critical parties your project will call for.

For example, let’s say you want to upgrade your factory’s electrical service from 208-volts to 480-volts.

You want an electrical engineering firm that has a relationship with the local utility. Also, has a relationship with the building department.

This will ensure your project will run much smoother.

Added tips for choosing an engineering firm 

Tip #1: ask about the outside agencies that’ll need to become involved in your project. Then ask about the work process and timeline with each agency.

Tip #2: ask if you’ll need to involve yourself at any stage in the project. Anyone who’s familiar with your work will know what the customer’s involvement will be.

#4 What’s the quality of their work?

Everyone wants quality engineering work. At the same time, no firm will say they produce poor quality work.

So, do your research on firms. Find out how many longtime customers they have. Because you’re not going to get repeat customers if you produce poor quality work.

Also, check if they work with large companies or government agencies. Because these customers don’t put up with bullshit. Plus, this signals a firm is highly respected in their sector of work.

Added tips for choosing an engineering firm

Tip #1: don’t only check if a firm will just provide drawings and specs. But check if they’ll produce all the other documents you need. This includes documentation of your project.

Tip #2: ask about a firm’s quality control protocols. You want to ensure they have in-house quality checking protocols. This way mistakes don’t slip through the cracks.

#5 How creative are they? 

golden gate bridge black and white
Golden Gate Bridge (Photo Credit: Angel Origgi)

Creativity and engineering go hand in hand. Especially when it comes to complex challenging problems.

I even discuss how to be a creative engineer as it relates to the design of the Golden Gate Bridge. This will give you an idea of what to look for in a firm.

You want an engineering firm that can come up with creative solutions for you. You don’t want to constantly hold their hand through the entire design process. Such a firm isn’t worth your time.

You’re paying expert professionals to do the heavy lifting for you.

Added tips for choosing an engineering firm 

Tip #1: ask questions about your project. See what type of solutions a firm will give you right off the bat.

Look for out-of-the-box thinking. Preferably, ideas that are more simple yet effective than what you proposed.

Tip #2: will the engineering firm simply run with your design suggestion? You want an engineering firm that’ll dissect your project scope and give you added input. Even if your suggested design is awesome.

Because you’re not the expert. You need professional advice to avoid future problems with your design.

Tip #3: request samples of work. Don’t just go off with what’s listed on a firm’s website.

Because frankly, a firm can say they designed the Empire State Building. But what they don’t tell you is that they only submitted a preliminary design. This preliminary design was later scrapped and never even used.

#6 What’s their track record?

Find firms with impeccable track records. You don’t want to hire a firm that burned a handful of past customers.

Despite what a firm says, there are always three sides to every story. What you believe occurred, what they believed occurred, and what actually occurred.

So with a spotty past, a firm may screw you over too. This is something I wouldn’t risk.

Added tips for choosing an engineering firm 

Tip #1: do a deep dive Google search on firms. Find their dirty laundry.

Tip #2: if a firm has a bad reputation but denies it, ask to speak with their disgruntled customer. If the firm knows they weren’t in the wrong, they’ll gladly provide you with the requested information.

After speaking with both sides, you can then make the final judgment call.

#7 What’s their billing rate?

Cost is without a doubt a huge factor in your decision in choosing a firm. You want to ensure a firm will complete your project on budget.

At the same time, you don’t want to compromise on quality by going with an overly cheap firm. Because you get what you pay for, as you shop on the cheaper end of the scale.

Thus, you need to strike a balance between quality and cost.

To point out though, some overly expensive firms deliver poor quality work. So regardless, you always need to do your research on every firm.

Added tips for choosing an engineering firm 

Tip #1: if a cost appears too good to be true, then there’s probably a reason. Do your research on the firm to find out if the engineering quality is subpar.

Tip #2: ask questions about the cost. Also, ask for a detailed breakdown if all you received is a lump sum cost.

Tip #3: don’t be afraid to question a cost. At the same time, try your best to understand the cost structure of a firm.

You can do this by comparing against project quotes from other firms. Also, by asking cost-specific questions to the firm.

Tip #4: don’t be cheap. Quality engineering comes at a cost. If you try to endlessly bargain down a top-tier engineering firm, they’ll tell you to go take a hike.

Keep in mind, the initial design cost is minor in the lifetime of a project. A quality design costs money. Plus, it’ll save you magnitudes more in future expenses.

#8 What type of insurance do they hold?

Insurance is an important component of every engineering project.

If something goes wrong, your project needs to remain protected.

It’s no different than hiring a contractor to upgrade your home. You wouldn’t hire a contractor who doesn’t hold insurance. The same goes for engineering projects.

So, be sure an engineering firm has the right insurance types and coverages.

Added tips for choosing an engineering firm

Tip #1: if a firm doesn’t have the insurance amount you want, don’t quickly cross them out. Engineering insurance is expensive.

When an engineering firm isn’t working on large projects, they’ll have minimal insurance. But if a large project comes their way, they’ll then quickly upgrade their insurance. This is a very common practice.

Tip #2: an engineering firm with low insurance coverage doesn’t signal they’re experienced or not. It simply highlights the type of work they’re currently working on.

For example, maybe a firm specializes in hydroelectric design. But in one year their projects are only small hydro. Thus, their professional liability insurance is only $2 million versus $10 million.

#9 What’s their project timeline?

Projects can’t stretch on endlessly. But you may need to get your project done in three months max.

So, you need to ensure an engineering firm can get your project done on your schedule. When you interview engineering firms, you’ll find your estimated project timelines vary greatly.

Some firms will say they can finish your work in 3 months. While others may say one year.

So first, search to find an engineering firm with experience. But at the same time, they’ll deliver your project on a realistic timeline.

Added tips for choosing an engineering firm

Tip #1: be aggressive with your proposed timeline. Because firms will almost always push back and try to increase the timeline. Plus, unexpected problems always come up in engineering.

Tip #2: make an engineering firm create a detailed timeline for you. Do this before signing a contract with them. This way you have a record over an agreed-upon project progression schedule.

#10 What’s their level of responsiveness? 

smoke signal looking for a response
Photo Credit: Hugo Jehanne (image cropped)

My biggest pet peeve is lack of responsiveness. For example, it takes a couple of weeks to receive a simple reply back.

I’ve even had cases where I offered engineering firms tens of thousands of dollars for a project. All they had to do was sign the contract. Keep in mind, these were firms who had approached me.

It took them three-plus weeks to sign the contract, even after many follow-ups too.

Then I finally received a response saying, “sorry, I was slammed with work.”

Like come on now, no one is that busy. I can smell bullshit from a mile away. That was then the last time I ever worked with those firms again.

In short, I would always gladly pay more to work with firms that have great communication. Not only will you save money through a shortened timeline, but you’ll keep your sanity.

Plus, when you pay big money, transparency is simply expected.

Added tips for choosing an engineering firm

Tip #1: request to meet the person who will be your direct point of contact. You can tell a lot about someone through in-person meetings.

Tip #2: ask a lot of questions before selecting a firm. See how responsive they are in this beginning project stage.

If a firm is unresponsive or gives you short answers from the start, then stay away. Because in this beginning stage, firms should be the hungriest as they want your business. They should be on their A-game. Only thereafter, the communication typically may go downhill.

Tip #3: ask how you’ll remain kept in the loop on your project’s progress. This includes email, status reports, video conferences, physical meetings, and so on.

To point out, I’m not saying to constantly hover over a firm. As that’s horrible in itself. Rather, look to keep a healthy level of communication.

#11 Do they hold all appropriate licenses?

This goes without saying, the firm needs to hold all required licenses to do your work. Otherwise, you can’t submit your design for approval. Of course, if your project requires a license.

Also, having all the required licenses under one roof will ensure your work runs smoother. This is like having all disciplines of engineering under one roof.

Added tips for choosing an engineering firm

Tip #1: ask what types of approval your project requires for full completion.

Tip #2: ask for license numbers. Then make sure the licenses are all up to date. Also, check no license holders have any penalties placed against them.

“How to choose an engineering firm?” wrap up

Choosing an engineering firm can be a tedious process.

But this isn’t a process you can rush. Unless of course, you’re okay with flushing thousands of dollars down the drain.

At the same time, what if you do find an awesome firm? You’ll then have a dependable partner to rely on for years to come.

Most all the clients I have worked with, have always returned year after year. Again, this is all like the plumber or electrician that has now almost become a part of your family. You have their number on speed dial.

So be thorough in your search and interview process. Put in the time to find the best engineering firm.

Don’t settle for anything but the best!

What are your thoughts on how to choose an engineering firm? Which qualities do you find the most important for an engineering firm to have?

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