Any website design firm can claim that it’s the best at something. They may say they’re the best designers, the best developers, or the best full-service agency in town (or in the world, if they’re ambitious). But how can you differentiate those who talk the talk and those who walk the walk?

There are some general design agency best practices that all agencies should follow. These are the kinds of best practices that all the top agencies on our 2014 list follow. They may seem fairly simple or like something you’d automatically expect, but you might be surprised by how many companies don’t meet these four simple standards!

Here are a few signs that the design agency you’re evaluating is worth considering for a long-term partnership.

They’re Accommodating

You’ve heard the saying “the customer is always right,” of course. In the world of design agencies, it’s a little different: the saying is “the client is always right.”

As a client, you reserve the right to make final decisions on your design, website, marketing, and overall market positioning. Your agency should respect that, and be accommodating to your wishes and requests. While you may disagree from time to time, any agency worth its salt knows that the client deserves respect – or, if you’re really behind the times on something, a gentle education.

If you run into a firm that seems as if it would rather take charge of your efforts and move them in an entirely different direction, or tells you that a long-standing program or marketing effort producing results for you is a bad idea, turn around and run the other way. A good agency-client relationship is based on respect, and you definitely won’t enjoy your working relationship if there isn’t any of it to be found.

They Stay Current with Industry Trends

The agencies you’re considering should be up-to-date on all industry standards and trends. Don’t be afraid to give them a pop quiz! Ask questions about responsive design, design for mobile devices, flat design, UX, or any other topic you like. If they can’t answer your questions, the site they give you may not be as modern as it should be.

Look for firms that offer education or ongoing learning programs for their employees. These are the ones who take staying current seriously. You can also ask to see very recent website designs, rather than what may be in the portfolio or client page available online – this will usually give you a good idea of what they are producing right now.

Their Pricing is Fair

The best agencies won’t blindside you with their pricing. If the company you’re thinking about working with provides their pricing up front, and has a detailed breakdown of why it costs what it does, you’ll know you’re looking at someone reputable. The industry best practice with pricing is not only to be honest, but also to explain the costs in terms of hours.

If you aren’t sure what your project or website design should cost, check around the Internet for other opinions. You could ask fellow business owners on message boards or forums what they paid for their projects, or ask for multiple quotes from several businesses to see if any stick out as far too high (or low).

We’ve mentioned elsewhere that most design firms don’t list their pricing online. They may do this because they’re afraid of competitors scoping out their charges to beat them, or simply because they want to get a potential customer on the phone before talking price. Regardless, make sure you have the full picture – that is, all the pricing plans and packages available – before making a decision about who to go with.

They Provide Costs and Time Estimates Up Front

Similarly, if you’re approaching an agency with a project, they should be giving you a time and cost estimate right up front. The best agencies will have experience and knowledge to draw on when creating a custom quote for you, and should be able to give you at least a ballpark estimate of hours and what your investment should be.

Avoid any firm that says something like “we’ll have to give you the total when it’s done” or “we’re not sure how long it will take.” They should absolutely know how long it will take and how much it will cost you. Nobody wants to be surprised with a huge bill at the end of a project, after all!

You should also look for agencies that clearly state both initial and ongoing costs and time estimates. For example, it may take 30 hours to perform website design at $15,000, and 1 hour per month of design maintenance at $250. An agency should be telling you this up front, and not slapping you with a maintenance bill out of nowhere.

These are four of the design industry best practices that we suggest you keep in mind when considering hiring an agency to handle your design or online marketing. Need help finding a reputable agency to work with that follows these best practices? Check out our 2014 list of the top design agencies to start your search.