4 Questions to ask your next agency partner

Once you find the right agency partner, you latch onto them, relying on them to make your vision come alive. They are smart, reliable, dependable, and always willing to help you be your best at work. But, how do you find this needle in a haystack? Here are four questions you should ask every technology vendor before you sign on the dotted line. With the answers you get, you’ll be much closer to finding the perfect partner.


I will never forget, I was co-presenting at HCIC (Healthcare Internet Conference) about how we were building a taxonomy for healthcare content. Once it was done, I immediately had four people walk very quickly up to the front of the room to start telling me about their services. My client stood to the side laughing, as I got a taste of her life. It was like vultures going for fresh meat.

There will always be companies vying for your contract, which makes it hard to find the perfect partner. No matter the process, it’s important to go into the relationship with both eyes open. Getting past the fluff and sunshine and roses will let you evaluate your potential partner as people, which means they come with their successes and their failures. These flaws are just part of it, but you can take the necessary steps ahead of time to help reveal them before getting too far in.

After seeing countless projects go into “red” status, I wanted to give your four questions you need to ask every vendor before you sign on the dotted line.

 

#1 Do you get or give ANY incentive?

It’s very common for agencies to get paid a percentage of a contract as a referral fee. For example, you hire a digital agency to build a new content management system (CMS) for you. They recommend a platform to customize, so you then must sign a hosting plan and pay a licence fee to this CMS company. Chances are the agency gets a percentage of your initial contract. Did they recommend the CMS to you because it’s best for your company, or because they get a commission from it?

On the flip side, if you are working with a consultant that recommended this vendor, did the vendor give commission to the consultant for the recommendation?

Incentives and commissions are not bad, but you need to know as the decision-maker who is getting paid and at what amount. It’s really just about having the transparency into what is happening behind the scenes. Follow the money. Knowing a commission or kickback is given allows you to weigh your decision appropriately.

 

#2 How many projects have you done with this technology and other technologies in the last 2 years?

If you’re going with Adobe for your platform and seek out a certified Adobe partner, this question is less relevant to you. But, it’s important to have transparency into a vendors capabilities. They may only be recommending Adobe or Magento to you because that is what they can build in-house, but Drupal could actually be a better fit.

What technologies do they have staff for? Can they articulate why one technology is better than the other? Is it worth it for you to get another vendor with another technology and compare the two? Start digging here and see what kind of information you get. Again, having expertise in one technology is by no means a bad thing. You just need to seek to understand the whys before you agree to a technology that was chosen just because it’s what the vendor offers.

 

#3 Is content, content loading, assets or anything else included? Is this a turn-key solution?

I have seen this time and time again, where a company thinks they’ve purchased a new corporate website or a new CMS platform, just to find out half-way through that it doesn’t include getting the site to launch. Crazy, right?

  • Vendor perspective: They need to build the shell, which is the front and back end. Getting your approved visual design correctly coded, your guidelines live, your data integrations, your analytics is what they signed up for
  • Business perspective: You signed up to get a website live, not knowing that there is a huge delta between a shell complete and having all content written, loaded, photos taken, meta descriptions, SEO-optimized blog or news content, email flows for contact pages, and everything else that must be done

It’s not unusual that content creation and loading can be 50-75% of the cost of building out the website shell. Make sure you take the time to work through what is included in your contract so you’re not blind sighted by the sudden increase in cost.

 

#4 How do you keep track of scope creep, overages, and increased costs?

Changes in scope happen. I can’t think of one build that didn’t have some kind of change in scope throughout the course of the project. Things are always different once you start to peel away the layers and complexities, which end up costing a lot more time and money.

How to avoid scope changes ahead of time:

  1. Consider having all your requirements complete (at the Epic-level) prior to engaging with a technology vendor. This is the kind of work we do at Branch Strategy because it allows you to have your strategy in-place prior to looking at a technology solution. (Read more about how you can lead your own “Discovery” process here, allowing you to have your requirements much more complete before taking to agencies.) One of the worst decisions to make is to go to an agency and say, “We want a new website!” when you have no idea how to articulate what it is you want. You’ll be stuck with whatever they create, which is often far away from what you wanted
  2. Ask for a smaller discovery phase project before signing the larger build work. If you have a $3M platform project, set aside $150k on the front-end for discovery work to flesh out all the requirements with your vendor. This helps to surface exactly what you’re buying and what they need to build for you while also making sure it’s a good fit. You ultimately own the discovery work, so you can take it to another vendor for the build if you determine it’s not a good fit, which cuts down your risk tremendously

I once was part of a project that went 40% over budget. It was p-a-i-n-f-u-l for everyone involved. The project team on the vendor side was burned out and wanted to quit their jobs, leadership on the vendor side was disgruntled because their employees continued to be tied up, and the client was facing a huge bill that seemed to have no end in sight.

How to avoid scope changes in the middle of the project:

  1. Commit to the time. Your involvement is critical so decisions can be made quickly and effectively. Nothing is harder on a vendor then a client who disappears for weeks at a time, offering no way to get answers
  2. Get weekly status reports and actually read them
  3. Assign an internal project manager to the vendor who can ask the tough budget questions, review hours reports, and have a “less shiny” and more accurate report to give you
  4. Ask for and participate in bi-monthly sprint reviews. This is an opportunity for the developers to showcase their work. You get to see exactly what is being built and how it’s coming along, which gives transparency into progress, blockers, and potential scope changes
  5. End every meeting with a question. A favorite client of mine did this during a build and it has stuck with me ever since. He was a one-man team and as the VP of Communications for a large company, he really needed the website to be built with as little of his time as possible. He requested that the entire project team come to the weekly status meetings and then he would call out an individual and say something like, “Steve, what is the one thing you really struggled with this week?” or “Jennifer, what is the one line item on this project plan that is the least likely to happen on time?” It was these questions that allowed him to push through the “everything is fine until it’s not” mentality

Make sure you talk about, prior to signing a contract, how scope and budget are managed. Ask to meet your potential project teams, ask for an example project status report, ask to get a mock project update, or whatever else you need to feel confident that you will get honest insight into how scope and budget are managed. Even better, get a reference for a project that did go over scope and budget. Talk to that client to understand how it was communicated, worked through, and if the outcome was positive.


The vast majority of technology vendors are good and smart people. They don’t intend to trick you or take your money and not deliver, but every company is made up of humans that are inherently flawed. It’s important to ask the right questions ahead of time so the vendor knows what you expect from them. This little bit of work can save you significant amounts of time, frustration, and money once the project finally launches.

Jackie Martin

Jackie is the founder of Branch Strategy. With over 15 years of experience with all stages of web and software design and development, she works with her clients to identify, plan, and implement data-driven digital marketing solutions. Her passion is to help leaders who don't know what to do and don't know where to start.

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