As a CEO and investor, I'm in the business of evaluating companies, employees and opportunities for a living. Pointing out deficiencies and solving for them is my job. Of course one thing I grade against is what clients and prospects think -- of our business and of the investment-seeking growth company I'm evaluating.

I thought we had a pretty robust evaluation process, but a recent client surprised me with how much rigor they put into the process of analyzing our agency. As part of their review in choosing their new digital agency of record, they built an evaluation tool with 36 scorable metrics bucketed into six sections.

Thirty six chances to impress. Thirty six pitfalls to avoid. All based on the opinions of six stakeholders through three pitch meetings and about 10 hours of formal conversations. Talk about the shark tank.

We could've just told ourselves we'd won the business and move on. But we couldn't call ourselves a performance-driven agency and not look at the metrics. So we dug in and evaluated ourselves on each and every metric.

What an eye opener. They scored us lower than expected on an area we thought we covered thoroughly in the pitch process. And another we thought we'd nailed was called into question. We also realized about 10 other things that will help us in future pitches.

Putting ourselves under the microscope and running through this evaluation was so helpful, we're now using it in our sales pipeline to help other brands evaluate us in the pitch process (and yes, to evaluate the agencies we're pitching against).

So the next time you're evaluating an agency partner, consider these six tips as you go through your review process.

1. Go beyond the words in the proposal

Clarity, design and recommendations are important, but those are really just the table stakes of any good proposal. Instead, go a few levels deeper. How much effort did they appear to put into the proposal? How tailored were their solutions to your business and how much research did they do to arrive at the recommendations they were proposing?

2. Avoid going all-in on the pitch

Evaluate the style, story and the narrative of the agency's pitch, but take it for what it is: A scripted story being told by people with a motive to win business. Sure it matters, but be careful how much weight you give it --it's like placing a blind bet.

The quality of the solutions presented, their receptiveness to go deep in conversations (beyond surface level), and the people they brought to the pitch are far more important factors. The pitch is where you should try to get the information you need to see if you can become a believer in their approach.

Do they truly understand your customer? Are they capable of bringing alternative approaches and ways of thinking to the table to solve your most pressing business objectives?

3. Score the entire process and every interaction

This is the evaluative component of "who" the agency is. It examines how strategic and analytical they are.

Did their team demonstrate an inquisitive attitude? Were they confident in the plan they were proposing? How strong was their methodology and was it clear they went to great lengths to truly understand your business?

4. Test the communications waters

Good client relationships are built on good communication. With that in mind, is the agency responsive, accurate, and transparent? Do they require significant or minimal hand holding? During this early phase, you want to gain insight into what an ongoing relationship would look like with them.

Thus, measure on how well they take direction, how much guidance they needed, and finally, that they are capable of not just being quick, but also succinct in their communications. Because even good communication can become too much communication.

5. Go beyond their case studies -- double down on capabilities

This is the most functional area of the assessment. It keys in on the areas of need put forth in the RFP. In a nutshell, did the agency show they could pull the levers across the disciplines where your company needs the most help?

You might also evaluate a few other unexpected areas like how well they facilitated meetings and their process for creating performance indicators.

6. Do they stand behind their cost structure?

We know pricing is always a factor, but it's worth taking a look at how simplified their approach is to billing and flexible they are willing to fit scopes to budgets (current and future). In other words, look closely at the "how" as part of the "how much" question.

In the end, there are endless ways to evaluate new relationships, but for us this 36-point examination has helped us strengthen our pitch process, our partnerships and our business on the whole. As you look to grow your business, take a moment to consider how you're evaluating your agencies and if you need a scorecard, we'll happily share ours.

Published on: Oct 31, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.