Businesses often decide to outsource their website development to digital agencies. It certainly makes sense if you haven’t got the skills or resources on hand to do it yourself. But engaging with a digital agency often means more than simply outsourcing an isolated piece of work. If a digital agency does a good job and you work well together, it’s likely that a business will want to engage them again and again. Especially as after an initial engagement, the deep understanding of how the website works will then reside in the heads of the agency staff. This means choosing a digital agency can be an important strategic decision, more akin to a ongoing business partnership than just a one-off engagement.
When selecting a digital agency from a shortlist, you’ll start by comparing proposals and conduct your own questions and answers sessions. But if you’re not too familiar with the ins and outs of building a website, then it’s not what the agency tells you, it might be what they’re not telling you, that can cause problems down the line.
I’ve worked a number of vendor selection processes on the both the vendor and the agency sides and have put together some of the best and most challenging questions a business could ask of the agency.
This is more of a background check than it is a question, initially at least. Take a look at the digital agencies’ public records. Information such as financial statements, credit rating and who owns the company is readily available on public company records. You can find out if the company was larger or smaller than you had expected, whether finances and credit are in a healthy state, who owns the company and all sorts of other potentially useful information. Such reports are available from a hundred bucks or so from D&B as well as other public bodies such as Companies House in the UK. The information cost can easily be worth it, especially if the information strongly influences your final decision. Once the reports have been reviewed and being that they’re on public record, then you should have no qualms about asking the agency any related questions.
Project Management Flavour
Ask the agency, what is their approach to project management? What you’re looking for here is how clearly and confidently they can answer the question. Does it seem to you that they have a tried and trusted approach to running projects? Or do you think they are making it up as they go along? Are their project managers certified and if so, in which project management disciplines are they experts? If asked, could they present their project management process? That means more than just a few lame process arrows on a PowerPoint slide.
What Do We Have To Do?
When the project has started, what do they expect from you? Again, there is no particular right answer but do they demonstrate their experience by having a clear response to the question? If they respond with examples of the types of duties they’d expect their clients to be responsible for or the project roles they might expect to take within the project team, then they’ve obviously thought it through. This question may inform you whether they see both parties working together as a single team. It’s possible that you can detect an element of an “us and them” mentality creeping into the conversation, which in itself could be a warning sign.
Meet the Team
Who will be assigned to the project? And can we see their resumes and meet them? During many an agency presentation, I've met slick, smart, professionals who clearly demonstrate that they know what they’re talking about. But they might also be their star consultants who rarely ever work on client projects. You want to know who you’ll actually be working with, meet them and find out as much as you can about them. I’m not advocating formal interviews but on the other hand, the biggest single factor in any project’s success is the people and so you really should pay close attention to the prospective team's capabilities.
Ask the agencies what their approach is to estimating projects and whether you can see their workings? In the first part of this question, you’re looking for a more professional answer than just guesswork. If they use a formal estimation method to cost the project, it will be to their credit. But as long as they use good practice which seems credible, then they’ve passed the test. The second part of the question regarding seeing their workings might be declined but really it’s just a simple litmus test of their openness. Is their response helpful and honest or do they become defensive and shifty? How they answer this delving question will help you determine how they’re likely to respond when bumps in the project occur later down the road. And bumps will occur.
What’s Been Missed
Presuming that the company submitted a project brief to the agencies with which to do their bidding, can the agencies highlight anything important that’s been missed? On the assumption that they’ve run many web projects before, they should be able to find something that would add to the project. The company can determine from the responses, whether an agency is likely to provide added value to the project or will they simply serve only as order takers?
How will the agency keep the business informed of progress and of any issues that arise throughout the project? It’s easy to provide a weak answer to this question such as they’ll ensure that you’re kept up to date or that they’ll provide regular status reports. But this question is designed to gauge how seriously they take high quality communication with their customers. Again, we’re looking for a robust answer that demonstrates their commitment to regular, open and honest communications.
When Things Change
Everyone knows that change is inevitable on a web project. There’s a lot that can go wrong as well as new features being added to the project requirements. Depending how the project is to be executed their approach maybe well able to cope with change and that’s the type of response that is helpful. Now, change can come with a cost and it’s perfectly fine for an external agency to raise the issue of additional costs to the customer. The question is; is cost all they talk about? Is cost their primary concern ahead of the success of the project?
Ask for details of three of their clients that can be contacted as references. The reference clients should be with whom the agency has run web projects that are comparable to your own project. The reason for asking for comparable clients is that it should prevent them presenting their friends as clients who will inevitably always provide bias opinions. If you're a small company, a multi-national global company is unlikely to make a useful reference. Talk to at least two reference clients, but the client's the agency force to the top of their list, should be treated with a least some caution.
Whatever tough questions you decide to put to digital agencies bidding for your project, it’s a good idea to ask the same questions of all the agencies. If you want to find the good apples, then you’ll need to compare apples to apples.
What killer questions have you asked or have been asked of you that have really helped with selecting a great digital agency?