The obvious purpose of outsourcing any function is to make your business function better than it already does – but many companies end up making their situation worse by selecting companies that don’t work out.  I overhear the horror stories at client onboarding meetings.  Situations like a company hiring a ‘marketing expert’ whose end product was convincing the company that their lobby needed to be redecorated and then helping them do so.  Stories like marketing companies who outsource every aspect of a campaign and then have no answer as to why things aren’t getting done on time.  Stories like a ‘guru’ selling a company on an SEO contract and then only pushing out press releases out through PR websites.  The list goes on and on – you’ve probably heard your own fair share.

But when it comes to specialties like internet marketing, web design, PR, or multimedia production, outsourcing can be an important necessity in a company’s marketing mix.  Anyone reading this knows that.  A problem with selecting what company to use can often be the sheer number of service providers available to choose from.  How do you know you are getting the most bang for your outsourced buck?

To steer clear of an outsourcing nightmare, you need to be able to recognize the warning signs when you see them.  Here are some of the red flags that people and companies should consider when selecting an outsourced marketer:

1. They Make Promises that No One Else in the Industry Makes

There is a reason why every spam SEO email you receive looks nearly the same.  It’s because these people have to promise outlandish, unrealistic things in order to get someone’s attention.  That’s because they are are on the outside of the industry trying to work their way in.  I would advise any company to be wary of a provider that promises anything, but especially those that promises things that no one else in the industry would come close to expressly stating.  A promise has to be true 100% of the time or else the  the promise has not been fulfilled.  Very little in the business world is truly 100% guaranteed and any company with experience with clients would  realize the potential consequences for guaranteeing things that they cannot fully control. They would not (and would not have to) make promises for the sake of getting attention.

What to Look For: If you find yourself considering a company based on a promise that they make in their marketing materials, do an exact match Google search for the wording in that phrase.  If the search returns a good amount of results that look like they are coming from less than trustworthy companies, take it as a huge red flag.

The Bottom Line: If you receive an email or call that sounds too good to be true, it definitely is.  If you don’t believe me, it never hurts to get a second opinion on a boastful claim.  Contact an established industry leader and ask them if what this other company is promising can be done.

2. They’re Not Down in the Trenches

Considering a digital marketing agency to help with your visibility?  Check the SEO footprint of their clients.  Considering a consultant for a PR campaign? Google the names of their clients to see where they get press placed.  Considering a company for local marketing?  Google their clients, see if they come up in the map pack.  After you have done all that, check the respective discipline for the company itself.  Those are probably the same strategies and tools that they will be using in your campaign.  Make sure you are comfortable paying for that.  If nothing comes up, they may not be actively doing that type of work.

What to Look For: Make sure that the company you are thinking about hiring for a specific task actually performs that task for its clients. If it is a new offering or a situation where they added experienced staff in order to offer that function, they should be upfront about it.

The Bottom Line: Companies that publish content on a topic that is outside their core offering sometimes may not have the experience or portfolio to warrant your hiring them.  Unless you are confident in their abilities and expertise generally, it might be better to go with someone with experience rather than paying someone to figure it out on your dime.

3. They’re Only Talking Heads

Many times the first place people turn when vetting marketing providers are to the companies most vocal in the niche.  There are a ton of experienced outsourced service providers that are regularly providing valuable, fresh content as part of their marketing mix.  There are leaders in the field that expose and set strategy trends.  The problem here is that outside of those industry leaders, sometimes the people that have the most time to speak, write, etc., are the least busy.  Live by the old adage that you can’t believe everything you read on the internet.  This is often because marketing service providers outsource their content creation/marketing.  They may have great information on their website, but all of that information may build them up in areas that they don’t actually know much about.

Perhaps because we are in the industry, I often notice marketing service providers publishing content about new buzzwords or service offerings that I know they do not produce work product for.  They seem to be writing about them in an attempt to keep up with the competition or chase the next check.  These are the companies you want to avoid.

What to Look For: Look for agencies that spread article production and speaking engagements around within their staff.  This is how you can tell that they are the ones writing about their own work product and that the staff is knowledgeable from the bottom up.

The Bottom Line: Always ask to see references and examples.  An established, busy company with actual clients will be excited to share them with you.  If they push back or don’t want to provide access to examples, they either don’t have any, or don’t have any that turned out well.  This also leads us nicely into the next point:

4. That Your Outsource is Outsourcing

I want to preface this with saying that outsourcing in a transparent manner is completely fine.  There are many disciplines and services that companies know they do not offer. Instead, they manage the outsourcing process by leveraging a valuable network of service providers that they have used for certain things before.  Being a trusted point-person is something that any good marketing company should be able to be for a client.   And further than that, there are many valuable project managers out there.

It only becomes a problem when a company touts itself as an expert or industry leader in an offering that it outsources in a non-transparent manner.  The problem with non-transparent (or 100%) outsourcers is that 1.  you are probably paying too much; and 2.  ensuring a subcontracted company’s  quality/availability is inconsistent over time.  People get snatched up, get busy, and trends change.  A company should be upfront when outsourcing an aspect of your campaign.   You need to be assured as to the quality and priority of your project.  That becomes somewhat muddy when your marketing company outsourced a project to someone down their outsourcing depth chart because choices one and two were too busy.  Cut out the middleman in those types of situations.  There are plenty of  experienced companies that do things in-house and should be able to seamlessly work as part of a larger marketing team on specific aspects of a campaign.

What to Look For: If you start a project and all of the sudden start receiving emails and updates from people who do not seem to work at the company or have generic (Google or Yahoo) email addresses, this might be a red flag.  Once you do get the names of the people working on your project, check them out on Linkedin to see if they say they work for that company.

The Bottom Line: Ask who specifically is going to be working on your project.  Get names.  If there is a hesitation, that might be a red flag.  If a company is outsourcing aspects of a campaign, ask to be involved in the vetting and hiring process of that third-party.

5. They Have a Skimpy Portfolio

It’s understandable when a new company doesn’t have the world’s longest list of clients.  Often, those companies can justify their ‘newness’ or lack of a list of client successes with experience in the industry.  If a company you are considering is established, however, they should have a list of client successes.

While there’s no magic number that determines how many clients are “enough,” you should feel confident that your outsource has sufficient experience in a relevant field.  You wouldn’t want to hire a brain surgeon to operate on your heart, no matter how talented they were.  The same concept applies here.

What to Look For: Look for a company’s fingerprints.  A comprehensive client list may not be available on a service provider’s website – but it should be available if you ask.  If they have a portfolio on their website and when you click through to those clients, the marketing company no longer seems to be affiliated with that client  – that is a huge red flag.

The Bottom Line: You should also make sure that those clients were actually happy with their results. Some number of satisfied clients are usually eager to provide an endorsement, while companies that do good work are usually eager to show off their abilities.  If either seems off – especially when asked directly – it’s not a good sign.

6. They Don’t Practice What They Preach

Professionals should always be able to practice what they preach.  If a marketer purports to be an “expert,” a “guru” (often a red flag in and of itself), or simply a professional, the work product for their own company should reflect it.

If a marketing agency claims an industry-leading web design focus but a cross-browser compatibility test shows that their own site won’t load in Firefox, that is a red flag.  If they promise to ensure your site is optimized for mobile devices, then why is their site so cramped and unreadable on your iPhone?

What to Look For: Don’t feel bad holding a marketing company’s feet to the fire about their own marketing.  Some of it might be explained with the ‘a carpenter’s house is never finished’ adage, but you should always ask.

The Bottom Line: You get the point – a competent and trustworthy marketing outsource will consistently meet the criteria it sets for its clients.  If it doesn’t, that might mean that it can’t.