Piecing Together the Right Pros

Finding the right consultant for a certain project can be like finding the correct plug to fit into an electrical socket: Select the wrong one, and you won't get any juice, but select one that has the correct "prongs," and you'll get a current.

When evaluating consultants for a specific project, don't use a "one-size-fits-all" mentality to eliminate companies because each firm's expertise can vary widely from that of its competitors.

For example, if a consultant is needed to investigate the extent of contamination or to design a remedial plan, an environmental consultant would be the appropriate choice.

While the personnel at these consulting firms may not be engineers, they are trained in the specialized arts of sampling, testing and analysis, and are well-versed in applicable regulations and filing requirements.

Although the past years' shrinking environmental remediation market has reduced the number of firms dedicated exclusively to environmental work, there still are plenty to be found nationwide.

If a project is limited to construction design, a firm of licensed engineers would be a more logical choice, especially if the consultants have considerable experience on similar projects.

Fortunately for prospective clients, there is a great deal of overlap between environmental consultants and engineering firms. Some firms offer both environmental and engineering departments, while others employ professionals trained in both disciplines.

The American Consulting Engineers Council (1015 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20005. Phone: 202-347-7474) provides a list of engineering firms and their specialties - a useful tool for starting a consultant search. State oversight boards, trade publications such as the Engineering News-Record, local directories and other companies or municipalities that have undertaken similar projects are additional referral sources.

Prior to searching for a consultant, it's important to define project goals and objectives thoroughly. The clearer the stated intent and the more detailed the request for proposal (RFP) documents, the more responsive the candidates' proposals will be. Take time to define the project's goals and objectives. List all the project components and identify anticipated problems.

Also estimate the project budget, if possible, and draw up a rough schedule for completion of the work. All of this information should be included in the RFP sent to prospective candidates.

Selection Based on Qualifications Public and private entities differ in their preferred procurement methods. The private sector often will contact a reputable consultant and negotiate the project's scope and cost, while the methods of public entities often are dictated by procurement statute or policy.

Although some public entities still rely on competitive bidding for professional services, qualifications-based selection (QBS) of an environmental consultant is preferred.

The QBS method is most useful on solid waste disposal and landfill design projects because they require creativity, knowledge and judgment - intangibles that may not be distributed evenly across candidates. The QBS method results in lowest life cycle cost and also helps ensure public health and safety. Considering the amount of money the client will spend and the consequences of a job poorly done, it behooves the client to find the consultant that offers the best credentials and ideas rather than the lowest price.

When undertaking a QBS, the client first invites firms to submit information on their qualifications, typically through a request for qualifications (RFQ). On a large, multi-million dollar project, 10 candidates would be a reasonable number to contact; on a smaller project, it is common for a client to contact four to five. The firms then are compared on the basis of technical competence, managerial ability, resource depth and experience.

If immediate response is a factor on the project, the client will take into consideration the firm's location. Next, the client narrows the field down from the initial list to a shorter list of three or four firms to whom an RFP is sent. The client often will meet with key personnel at these firms, either individually or in a respondents' conference, to clarify project details.

The client compares proposals to determine which offers the most appropriate solution. The client looks for a proposal that shows a thorough understanding of project elements and a detailed, innovative, cost-effective plan for accomplishing the presented goals. Past experience with the specific services required on the project should be demonstrated, along with a working knowledge of applicable codes and regulations.

A good proposal will explain the firm's technical approach and list the personnel who will carry it out. Although a senior firm member may be assigned to oversee the effort, the project manager will be the key person to identify, because he or she is the one with whom the client will be working on a daily basis. The proposal should demonstrate an ability to meet the client's schedule and budget requirements, and show that it has the financial and business background to see the project through.

Finally, the prospective client will contact the firm's prior clients for their feedback on the firm.

Based on these criteria, the short-listed firms are ranked in order of preference. Once quality and competence have been determined, the client will meet with the top-ranked firm to negotiate cost.

If the client never has embarked on a similar project, it may wish to ask the firms for a detailed presentation that includes a breakdown of estimated staff hours and billing rates.

This is also a good time to discuss whether or not the consultant will provide liability insurance. Because the cost of insurance has become increasingly prohibitive for environmental professionals, owners often are expected to be self-insured.

The project's scope or other terms may be redefined as both parties see fit in an attempt to reach a mutually agreeable figure. If no agreement is made, the client contacts the second consultant on the list and so on, until a contract is signed.

Although not everyone agrees that QBS is the best approach, environmental consultants and engineering professionals have long advocated its use. They know that when price is the primary deciding factor, the quality of work performed almost always will be compromised.

While cost must be a consideration, what may look like savings at the outset can lead to heavy future expenditures resulting from contamination and/or regulatory noncompliance, especially in the environmental arena.

For such reasons, New Jersey's Governor, Christie Todd Whitman, recently signed legislation requiring QBS for consulting engineers on state projects, and its use is gaining favor quickly in other states.

By removing the focus on price, QBS ensures that sufficient time and attention are given to communicate needs and solutions, and that candidate firms have an opportunity to put their best efforts forward.

The "qualifications-based selection" approach is geared toward identifying consulting firms that have the expertise and depth of resources best suited to your project.

* Begin your search by sending a request for qualifications to prospective candidates. Pare the respondents down to a "short list" of three or four preferred firms based on:

* technical expertise;

* depth and experience of staff;

* experience with similar projects; and

* recommendations from prior clients.

* Send these firms a request for proposals. This should provide as much detail as possible about the project so that the respondents can design a suitable plan.

Additional information can be provided at meetings with key personnel at each firm. Be sure to convey:

* the project's scope and objectives;

* a detailed timetable for completion;

* all of the project's components;

* the total budget; and

* any anticipated problems.

* Review the proposals to be sure that they respond to all project variables and ask for clarification, if necessary. Rank the firms in order of preference, taking into account:

* technical approach;

* experience with similar projects;

* qualifications of key personnel;

* ability to meet project schedule and budget; and

* financial stability.

* Finally, meet with the top-ranked candidate to negotiate cost. Ask to see a breakdown of estimated staff hours and billing rates if necessary.

If an agreement can't be reached, move down the list to the second name, continuing until a contract is signed.