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A weird situation took place last week at work. A person (let’s call him “agent”) that seems the owner and only employee of an engineering company contacted the company I work for to describe us an opportunity to cooperate in the development of a new machinery for a final industry client (shipping company) for which he was not allowed to reveal his name at this stage at least. We signed a two-way NDA with agent (agent asked that), and after that he sent us some calculations in a power point presentation.

This was the first red flag as there was nothing proprietary that was requiring an actual NDA (calculations were generated using a freeware software and the design points selected do not imply any industrial know-how). An engineer (colleague) responsible in the calculations and more experienced than me in the subject matter prepared and corrected his calculations (and design points!) based on our company’s experience and real situations that we would manufacture the machinery. The agent became mad and stated that we should stick into his calculations and that we made wrong in the calculations. After long discussions he agreed that our calculations are based on the real and in practice scenarios that we would encounter, but even in that case he still persisted that we did wrong in the calculations. I eventually understood that he had been using an older version of the software and that new version has some important updates that are immediately related to the design of that specific machinery. The agent finally acknowledged that and “allowed us” to use the latest version, as if we do not know ours job!

All of this week, the agent was acting as if we were students in an undergraduate or postgraduate course, and not real professionals that we take pride in our work (the company I work designs similar systems for over 20 years)!

After those issues were settled I asked the agent to discuss with the final client a series of issues/questions (related to the industry: shipping industry), that resolving them would help us to reach the final machinery configuration and cost of the machinery.

The first issue was that the machinery design was asking too much flow of cooling water flow and energy. First he was open to discuss that issue with the final client and then he said that the client had in the past accepted those data! The energy asked for was enormous for the client to accept based on our experience in marine projects (in the shipping industry), so we know those data were never presented to the client.

The second issue is that the agent denied to discuss with the client an alternative (contingency) option (to use the cheaper and more in abundance seawater flow - as cooling water flow - as most people would do) and he stated that we should to stick to his design.

The third issue is that he was totally reluctant to ask the client for the classification society the ship belongs to. This has major impact on the design standards that need to be followed, the product certifications and so on the cost.

Not for the agent to be able to discuss and those issues with the client was a major red flag for me that this was not a real project. Probably, the agent did not want to fake any complicated terminology as answers to my questions and decided to simply deny answering my questions. Most probably, we wanted to just use the pricing of such an equipment and the related design for his own research or for any other purpose.

Agent’s profile in LinkedIn seems to reveal a person with more of an academia profile than a person with strong ties with the industry (and definitely not the shipping industry). Finally I responded to the client if those issues/questions are not answered, we plan to halt all related work. Agent responded that he will not cooperate with us any more. We wished him good luck.

In conclusion, I spent more than a week going back and forth with him for nothing. The question is whether there are any specific (non-technical) and clever questions that can be asked from the real beginning that would easily reveal if a project is real one, whether the final client is a real one, and whether they are trying to use our company just to get the pricing information for any other reason other than actually purchasing an equipment. Although as a company we try to help other companies in their first steps with some degree of engineering (for free!), we demand some honesty and transparency in the follow-up process, so we understand in return the possibility of the project to actually take place and the resources we will have to allocate for that project.

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    TL;DR. Could you please try and edit this down? Jul 18 at 12:47
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    I’m voting to close this question because unfortunately it is, simply, way too long for this format.
    – Fattie
    Jul 18 at 13:29
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The question is whether there are any specific (non-technical) and clever questions that can be asked from the real beginning that would easily reveal if a project is real one, whether the final client is a real one, and whether they are trying to use our company just to get the pricing information for any other reason other than actually purchasing an equipment.

There are no magic questions.

You could choose not to work with anyone who is the sole employee of their company. That would avoid any back and forth and reduce the amount of research you need to do. That tactic might mean you miss out on some good opportunities.

You and your company get to decide what it is worth to research these sorts of possibilities. Perhaps it's worth a week of your time. Perhaps not. That should be a company decision.

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When they give you radically wrong numbers and stubbornly resist accepting yours, then there is a red flag regardless of whether or not the project and final client exist.

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The simple answer to prevent clients taking you for a ride, is to make sure they pay consultancy fees to compensate your company for effort. Just make it a policy. You can phrase it as a non-refundable down-payment if you wish.

There is no question you can ask, because for every question there is an answer that will satisfy you, and they can just say that. You may as well just ask: "Are you taking me for a ride?".

In this instance you would simply charge a fee to the client for you to sit at the table and discuss possibilities. If they are serious, they'll happily pay the fee.

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  • This might not fully work in our case. We are interested to give some free and preliminary in nature engineering work that its cost might get absorbed in actual equipment purchase, provided we are talking about a legit project and legit client. For example we do not care to give for free 5k engineering work if the potential project worths around 500k, depending on the possibility of the project and how the client stands in the market as a name.
    – Ge Peace
    Jul 18 at 13:27
  • @GePeace . You're completely wrong. It will work perfectly in your case.
    – Fattie
    Jul 18 at 13:30
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    @Fattie, probably you come from another industry sector, in process industry sector this randomly happens, and especially with medium-sized companies. If we would follow that advice (asking the engineering cost up front), we would not sell a single equipment.
    – Ge Peace
    Jul 18 at 13:33
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    Agree with Ge Peace ... multiple, even 10s of person-weeks, of speculative sales-support development work are not unusual in industrial. The trick IMO is to pick prospective clients who's pre-sales needs include preliminary/demo development areas that make possible to re-sell to someone else in the future - i.e. agree to more up-front, in cases where you were more or less planning to do similar dev eventually anyway.
    – Pete W
    Jul 18 at 22:40
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    @GePeace, Do all your clients hide the identity of the final client? Do all your clients make you sign NDAs? Information is a type of currency as well. If they're not willing to share information with you and require an NDA from you, that's when I would ask them for a deposit. But in the end, no one can make this decision for you. It's your industry and your experience. Vetting potential clients is a skill that comes with experience. Maybe try contacting your competitors and see how long it takes them shut down unreasonable requests. I'll bet you'll get a variety of responses. Jul 21 at 3:13

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