Doug Hamlin, president and CEO of Torrance, Calif.’s AutoMedia Solutions, knew it was time to revamp his website. To keep up with the advertising market, he had shifted his business model from business-to-business to consumer, but his website had yet to reflect that. He needed to completely overhaul is website to advise consumers on which cars to buy and on car maintenance. He needed to implement changes like getting rid of his password-protected website and donning a more consumer-friendly look and feel -- and that was just be the beginning.

In the first go-round, AutoMedia had built its website internally, but the company recognized it didn’t have the needed expertise to build a more complicated site. Diverting the attention of his small staff to build the site wouldn’t be efficient. He wanted to find a service provider who would listen and understanding his company’s needs.

But who would do that job? "Unless you are funded with venture capital, you need to be efficient," says Hamlin. So an expensive design agency wouldn't be the right fit for AutoMedia; Hamlin needed to hire a Web designer or small design firm. Here are five things experts say he should look for:

Consider experience

Ask to see work the Web designer has done before. There's a reason for the cliché: “The best indication of present and future behavior is past behavior.” Other client sites will show you the designer’s credibility as well as their different styles and designs. “By the work, you know the craftsmanship,” says Harley Manning, vice president and research director at Forrester Research. Also, ask the designer to tell you who the site was designed for and what their needs are. “If they can’t describe the person, it’s a huge warning sign,” says Manning.

Andrea Peiro, founder and CEO of the Small Business Technology Institute, says a Web designer should have a minimum of two years' experience and at least two current references. The references should be checked to see if the vendor delivers on time; is responsive to client needs; provides consistent, professional service; meets or exceeds expectations; and provides solutions at an agreed upon price.

Expect multi-skills

Does the company or individual do design as well as development? A good one would do both. Sometimes a really creative person can only take the technical part so far. A designer may be able to design a pretty site but it could be a problem if, say, you need a shopping cart, notes Gary Chen, Yankee Group analyst for the small and medium business strategies decision service. Look for full-service firms wherever possible. It shouldn’t be surprising that great programmers don’t usually make good graphics.

Beyond design and production

If it's within your budget (and it never hurts to ask), find out what else the company can do for your site. For example, can they also help you market your website? Can they help you optimize your site for search engines? Many Web designers will at least have some feel for this.

Justin Kitch, CEO and co-founder of Homestead Technologies, Inc., which provides website creation software and other e-commerce solutions services, encourages users to look for new ways to improve their websites. One example: Homestead offers site analytics and metrics to look at your site and see who is filling out your forms. That way you can tailor any changes to be more effective.

Process matters

“What separates a bad site and a good site is how well it influences the performance of the business,” says Peiro. There should be a sign-off process and the designer should give you a creative brief as an overview. There should also be a document outlining technical specifications -- a blueprint for programming. Make sure that he is building a site that fits the needs of your business and industry, says Peiro.

Location, location, location

AutoMedia Solutions’ Hamlin had an instinct to go local.  Being local has its benefits. For one, there's more hands-on care. The close interaction is also appealing. “I found my new vendor by doing Internet searches for someone in the area,” Hamlin says. After a couple of conversations, Hamlin drove to nearby Irvine to meet with Victor Liu, CEO of Web Advanced, and his team. There was an immediate connection. “Like everything, business is about relationships,” says Hamlin. “And, then like most decisions, you take a leap of faith and go.”