Best Practices for Working with Engineering Consulting Firms


Bill Lev

January 31, 2017

Companies contract with outside engineering firms for a variety of reasons – lack of expertise in house, lack of resources, wanting to get a different perspective/approach to design, and so on. Regardless of the reason, there are a number of things that can be done to increase your chances of success with whatever firm you choose, as well as to reduce risk/cost:

Start with a PRD (Product Requirements Document) or MRD (Marketing Requirements Document).

Whether you’re starting with a napkin sketch, already have an industrial design rendering, or even a proof of concept, it’s key to have a document that outlines what the product is and what it does, how it works, and as much detail as possible on the performance (and cost) specifications. Along with these specifications, it’s also important to understand what specifications/features are must have’s vs. nice to haves. During the design phase, engineers often need to make tradeoffs between features and/or specs – understanding your priorities will help guide the process. Engineering firms can generally help you write those documents if you don’t already have one or haven’t created one before.

Have a clear understanding of scope with the firm – and any dependencies

Often, firms are contracted to work on specific pieces of product. Ensuring there is clear understanding of what the specific work and deliverables are that you’re contracting for is critical. Be sure to be clear about any potential deliverables you may be providing that the firm will rely on (e.g., IP, materials, subsystems, etc.). You’ll also need to clearly outline any potential ramifications if those deliverables don’t occur when they’re supposed to, or if they don’t meet the requirements.

Have a designated single point of contact

Designate one contact for both the client and the consulting firm. Medium to large projects often have multiple engineers (and perhaps multiple firms) participating, perhaps from both the client and the firm. Designating a single point of contact for major communications and program management is key to effective communications, decision making, etc..Communicate and document early and oftenThe SOW is the overall document outlining what the program is about, and should include a project plan/timeline, costs, assumptions, deliverables, etc.. But it’s a starting point – requirements or specifications may change, you may encounter unforeseen issues, assumptions may become invalid. To manage this effectively, be sure to hold weekly reviews where progress is reviewed, issues (both current and potential future ones) are highlighted, and decisions can be discussed/made. Document any changes or deviations from the original SOW/scope.

Agree on a process should major problems arise

Despite the best intentions and planning, issues/problems can come up during the course of a project – make sure you have agreement as to:

Keep the consulting firm in the loop

Customer and product priorities can change during the course of a project – keeping the consulting firm aware of potential changes and jointly agreeing on potential deviations from the original plan can save you time, effort, and costs. By working together, priorities and resources can be changed to allow the most flexibility should priorities be shuffled.

Kick off the project with a team meeting

You're contracting with a firm because of their experience, expertise, processes, relationships, etc. – and most importantly their people. As you likely have your own team working on your project, get started on the right foot by having both sides meet each other at the project kickoff (or sooner) - in that way, it’s no longer an email or voicemail from some unknown person – and it helps to build the working relationship between both teams.We’ve found these approaches to be critical to the overall success of a project (and BTW, If you’re evaluating firms, you may want to ask about their process for working with clients – it could give you some good insight into what to expect down the road, and if that firm would be a good fit).

About the author

Responsible for business development and sales in the Western United States, Bill has more than 20 years of experience in the high-tech sector, working for startups and established companies delivering mission critical solutions to his clients. Based at Acorn’s headquarters, he works with the Acorn engineering team to help clients bring their ideas and new products to production. Bill has a B.S. in chemistry from Rutgers and an MBA from Fairleigh Dickenson.