No matter how good you are at building eLearning, sooner or later you will likely have to rely on an outside provider. Perhaps you have more work than you can handle, or maybe you were asked to deliver a product that requires a skill set you don’t have. If you’re new to the eLearning game, it may be uneconomical to build a capability in-house.

Time to go shopping. But how do you separate the good vendors from the bad? How do you make sense of all the hype and sales pitches you’ll hear? After all, you’re not just investing money in a project; you’re also investing your internal reputation.

It would be nice to have an “Angie’s List” for eLearning providers, but such a universal and authoritative resource is mostly lacking in our field. Yes, there are consultants who will do this for you, but even there, you need to qualify them. So what should you look for? How do you increase the odds that the vendor you select will be the right one for you and your organization? Here are seven vendor qualities you should look for:

  1. Reputation –  Check out how well people regard the vendor inside and outside your company. If someone in your firm has used them before, ask about the experience, see the deliverables, inquire as to how well the vendor met deadlines, and find out if they would invite the vendor back. Also check with your purchasing or procurement department to see how easy the vendor was to do business with. Outside your organization, don’t just look at testimonials on the vendor’s Website, ask their clients. Any vendor that doesn’t provide client contact information may be hiding something.
  2. Available resources – What resources would the vendor bring to your project? Check to see if the provider will provide a full-time, dedicated project team, or just “whoever’s available at the moment.” You don’t want a revolving door of consultants working on your project; and you do not want to go through the sales department to get to your team. Look to see if you will have the services of a good project manager. You also should assure that you will have access to key people, including senior managers and instructional designers. Where those people are located is not as important as their accessibility is. Waiting days for someone to get back to you when you have a question is not good.
  3. Expertise and experience – Of course you should evaluate the vendor’s eLearning experience and expertise, but this is not as easy as it sounds. There may be the right expertise in the provider company, but if they don’t apply it to your project, what’s the point? This is why looking at reputation and availability (above) is so important. Communication skills are also essential. You want a vendor that can speak with you, and your internal clients, in ways you and they can understand. Too much jargon may seem impressive, but at the wrong time, it does more to alienate and confuse.
  4. Match your work style and need – Do providers appear ready to work in a manner that is comfortable for you? Do they balance time on site with virtual work? Do they understand that you have other things to do and thus are able to get the job done without undue stress on you and your team? Most importantly, does the service offered reflect your expectations as to what you need? If you are looking for a strategic advisor, that’s fine, but if you just want another “pair of hands” to get the work done, will the vendor conform to that need?
  5. Knowledge of your company and its business – You can’t expect vendors to know as much about your business and your business challenges as you do, but you can expect them to do their homework. Do they seem aware of the issues and opportunities facing your company and your industry? Have they done work in your industry before? Even more important, when you speak with them, are they listening; do they continuously work to learn about you and your needs?
  6. Knowledge transfer – Look for vendors that have no problem in transferring skills to your organization, where appropriate. You should balance your reliance on a vendor with your need to grow your own knowledge. A vendor that creates a long-term dependency may be doing you a long-term disservice.
  7. Cost – Naturally, cost is a factor, but here again, it’s not so simple. Project price is one thing, but time to completion, upgrades, support and maintenance, expenses, and the amount of time you and your colleagues must devote to the project are just some of the factors that play into your decision. The cheapest up-front price may not necessarily be your best deal.

Getting reliable information can be tricky. A vendor’s Website gives you basic information, but remember who wrote it. And even when vendors give you client contacts and testimonials, you can be sure they’ve kept any disasters off the table. So this is the start of your research, not the end. It’s great if you can access independent reviews, and talk to former clients privately and confidentially. It’s even better if you can benchmark other companies.

As Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, “trust but verify.” Nothing beats getting to know potential vendors personally. Check them out at a trade show (see my column, “Handy Tips for Expo Shopping,” for more ideas about this). Visit their location and ask them to visit you. Get “under the hood” with their software and processes, and ask for independent time to play with their most recent products. Build these criteria into your RFP. Above all, look them in the eye and ask yourself, “Can I do business with these people?” “Do they know what they are doing?” “Will they have my best interests at heart?” When you see it, you’ll know.

Want to know more? If you’re going to the Guild’s Learning Solutions Conference in Orlando on March 21-23, attend my session, “Writing a RFP and Selecting a Vendor,” on Wednesday, March 21, at 2:30pm.