How to Choose an ISO 9001 Certifier

Nine questions to ask

Now would be a good time to start thinking about the certifier, I suggested. Good progress had been made on the client's quality system. Most of the gaps from the gap analysis had been filled or were well on the way. 

A shrug. "They're all pretty much the same, aren't they?  Does it really matter?"

It's a common belief, but a mistaken one. After deciding to "go for ISO", who you choose as your external auditor is a very important decision. (Almost as important as choosing a quality consultant or the right DIY ISO 9001 Kit). 

Why? Because you're going to have a lengthy relationship with your certifier, and particularly whoever they assign to your company as auditor(s). The auditor interprets the Standard/s you want certification for. They will inspect and test your system against its requirements.  And decide if your system meets them - or not. The decisions they make will affect you a lot, not least in whether you get or maintain your certification, but also in how much value they add.

I recommend you consider and compare at least two and preferably three certifiers.

You see, they are service providers (granted, special ones), but not government bodies and yes, they do differ. The certifier is the company that audits you against a Standard, decides if you meet its requirements, and awards you the certificate.  So before you start, think about what you need, and the criteria that are most important for you, as with any supplier.  Never just blindly opt for one with a well-known logo or name. 

How do you find them? Similar to selecting any other supplier: ask other people, ask consultants, search the web, use the phone book and so forth. The proper name for your auditing body is ‘certifier’ or ‘registrar’ (different countries prefer different terms), so search under those terms.   

Pre-qualification

All the largest and best-known certifiers are already pre-qualified: but if considering any small or newer ones, read this section and check. Anyone on your list to consider must be: 

a. Accredited by a signatory of the International Accreditation Forum (IAF) 
b. Qualified to audit in your field. 

a.  Accredited. Make sure the certifier has their IAF accreditation and it's current.  Don't even think of using someone who isn't.  How to check certifier accreditation

b. Qualified. To ensure your certifier is competent to evaluate your company, certifiers are accredited to specific scopes. Don’t consider anyone who isn’t.  


The 9 Questions to Ask

Assuming they are pre-qualified, here are my suggestions to help you choose.

1. Approach

What’s their 'company philosophy' and their approach ?  I believe this is the most important factor to assess.   Problem is, the people you will deal with are probably the sales people, who may often say what they think you want to hear.  For ISO 9001, you need and want a company whose approach to quality is compatible with yours. For example, are they focused on risk and importance, or more on mere conformity and procedure?  Do they talk processes? Do they even know what a process approach is, let alone train their auditors in it? What does the certifier say about their company?  What are their personnel like to deal with: in person, on the phone, via their website?  Do they seem customer-centred?  Do they send you incomprehensible forms (for example) and leave it up to you to work out how to fill them in? Because while some certifiers have very good auditors, their back office/administrative staff can leave something to be desired. 

And how long have they been accredited? Look for someone who has been around for quite some time, as they are likely to remain so. 

2. Price

Ask for an all-inclusive quote for a full 3-year cycle of registration.  Before you can get one, they first need certain information from you. (If they just give you an immediate quote over the phone, without asking for details, hang up. And don't walk away.  Run.)

When you have the quotes, consider costs. Different certifiers charge slightly differently, so make sure you evaluate them against the same criteria. Don’t assume they all do exactly the same thing, the same way. They don't.  In my experience: a/there isn't really a lot of variation on the whole and b/you do get what you pay for. If one price is significantly cheaper, be wary: the very cheap price is usually cheap for a reason and it's very rarely a good one. Choosing on price alone is most unwise and very short-sighted.

Does the quote cover everything required for the 3-year period? Do they bill for travel time? Travel expenses, if any, will be billed, but check that travel time isn’t also billable. This usually only applies if you are outside capital cities or if your organisation is a bit 'outside the norm', meaning an auditor with special skills has to be brought in.
Is there anything extra (not listed) that you would be charged for? If it’s mandatory, it should be included in the cost. An example of non-mandatory might be a ‘desk audit’ of your documentation before the audit: if you have it, they charge separately, if you don’t, there's no charge. If using a consultant, you shouldn't need or want this service. Are there any extra costs involved in using their certification mark / symbol on your company material? Any restrictions or particular terms of use? If so, what are they? If your sales or marketing team wants to use the logo post-certification in a way they won’t permit, better to find out now.

3. Schedule

How flexible is it? Can they fit in with your schedule? If time is very short, this may be high on your list.

4. Their Audit Personnel

What kind of auditors do they have? Where do their auditors come from and how are they selected and trained? Do they have reasonable experience in your field or a closely related one? Do their auditors have experience at  management level? (It's hard to find auditors with management experience, versus a 'shopfloor supervisor/inspector' mentality. This matters. A lot!) 
How does the certifier make sure their auditors remain up to date with changes and developments? Is there a suitable auditor in your geographical area? (Travel expenses add significantly to cost.) With a local auditor, this isn’t an issue, and may also help with scheduling.  

Can you meet your Lead Auditor beforehand? (Often may be difficult, as auditors are usually busy auditing.) The person assigned as your primary (lead) auditor is very important – you need to feel comfortable with them, so you should at least be able to talk by phone, even if not in person. Note that if you have trouble understanding them, or you don't much care for the way they approach things, it never improves. 

5. Differences

What happens if there is a difference of opinion with your auditor, you really don't take to them or you aren't happy with the course of an audit? It can happen. Is there anything beyond a very formal appeals process? For example, is there a customer service or audit manager you can discuss an issue with, to ensure any differences are resolved constructively and effectively? 

6. Major nonconformance

You hope not to get one of these (and won't if using us of course ). But if you do, how are they handled? For example, do they require a further special auditor visit - which you are charged extra for - to verify your corrective action?

7. Value add

If using a good consultant, this may well be irrelevant.  Do they offer any 'technical' support if needed, such as understanding terminology? But do be aware that certifiers and their auditors can not consult. And they must not give advice such as if you do x, then you'll definitely pass. This would be a breach of ethics and a conflict of interest. It is specifically prohibited by the accreditor  (JAS ANZ etc). Do they offer training, for example, in quality systems or auditing ? Most of the larger and reputable ones do.

But if you’re going it entirely alone, then you may want all the help you can. When a question comes up about how to interpret a particular requirement, for example, if there's access to informed guidance, you may want to use it.

8. Other

Are there any additional requirements in their contract for the management system beyond those in the Standard (eg, ISO 9001)? If so, what?  Because when you sign their contract, you agree with whatever is in it, so check first.  Can you choose only one or two accreditation marks on the certificate? Some have multiple accreditations and bill you for each accreditation mark, whereas mostly you only need those for the country or countries you do business in. 

Has their accreditation ever been suspended or revoked? If so, why and what occurred? How long (on average) would you expect to wait for their audit report to be delivered?

9. Other People’s Experience

What do others say about them? Talk with other certified organisations, perhaps some key customers, or if possible other companies in the same/similar field. If you contact your own customers or suppliers, it's also an opportunity to publicise your plan to get certified. You may find certain of your customers have a strong preference for a particular certifier. If almost everyone in your field is certified with GREAT BIG GLOBAL certifiers, that might mean it would be advisable for you too.

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