(This is a guest post from our friends over at121eCommerce, a seasoned Magento Professional Partner and web development agency specializing in B2B and B2C eCommerce.)
Imagine you woke up to an Apache assault helicopter parked in your driveway. The card says, “Have fun. Love, Dad.” (Disregard for a moment why your father would give you the top attack helicopter in the world).
The bigger question is: What do with this powerful piece of hardware attracting the attention of your neighbors.
Your son wants to use it to impress his friends. Your daughter wants to know if it comes in pink. Your spouse wants it gone. Now. And you? You want to learn to fly it.
Now you have to choose a flight instructor.
Will it be a local pilot whose experience is limited to flying sightseeing helicopters for tourists? Or will you search out a veteran Apache pilot who knows the ins and outs of this beast and can teach you how to get the most out of your new toy?
If you’re smart, you’ll choose the Apache expert.
Choosing the right agency to build your eCommerce site is very similar.
There are a lot of agencies out there that can build you a web store. But you don’t want just any agency. You want an agency that knows your eCommerce platform intimately.
You want an agency that can harness the full potential of this powerful platform and can leverage it to your advantage. You want an expertly-trained, seasoned agency with a proven track record to deliver a webstore that will crush your competition.
How do you find such an agency?
14 Questions to Ask Before Hiring an eCommerce Agency
We’ve put together 14 questions to ask. The answers to these questions will make it quite clear if you’ve found an eCommerce agency that can help you fly your store into battle and win.
1. How long have you worked with the eCommerce platform?
A good measurement of expertise is how long an agency has worked with the eCommerce platform you’ve chosen. If the platform is complex, like Magento for example, you want a seasoned agency that has faced and resolved many of the same challenges you may see during your website development. This can save you tons in development cost.
2. Have you worked on similar sites in my industry?
While far from a deal-breaker, this is a nice plus.
If you’re a seller of car parts, for example, you may need certain customizations that are not available from an out-of-the-box eCommerce installation. If your development agency has worked on similar sites in your industry, they may have already developed the functionality you’re looking for. Or close to it.
This could save you countless hours of discovery time and development hours if the solution you’re looking for has already been mapped out for a similar client.
3. How do you handle QA and testing?
Any agency you work with will undoubtedly have a QA and testing protocol. What you want to find out is how robust their process is. Ask to see their QA and testing process in writing or a flowchart. If they can provide one to you on the spot, bravo. You may have a winner.
While you need to consider many factors in choosing the right development partner, QA and testing is a deal-breaker. Poor code is often the result of poor QA and testing. And if your website is developed with poor code, your site will suffer now and in the future when you need to fix it.
4. What does your reporting look like?
Ask to see samples of their reporting. First and foremost, it should be easy to read. Next, it should clearly show the progress of your project. What tasks have been completed? What tasks are upcoming? What tasks have issues?
A weekly phone meeting here is nice, but you need accountability and transparency, and that only comes with detailed, constant reporting.
5. How many eCommerce projects have you launched?
While quantity over quality is not your main goal here, you still want to ensure your eCommerce agency has plenty of experience in both launching websites, and in migrating current websites to your platform.
Successfully. This is key.
6. Does the agency have in-house web developers skilled for your eCommerce platform? Will your project be outsourced to subcontractors?
Here’s a little-known secret…
Many eCommerce agencies, even US-based ones, use off-shore developers. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You want the best eCommerce developers for your project, right? Well, sometimes that means looking off-shore.
If your agency uses off-shore developers (and they should tell you if they do), ask how many of them are trained and certified for your platform. This will give you a good sense of their level of expertise.
If they’re lacking in certifications, that doesn’t always mean that they’re not experts in your particular platform. You can also ask about the developers that will be assigned to your project, and their specific experience with your system.
7. Are you a certified platform partner?
One of the quickest ways to vet out potential agencies is to ask them if they are a certified partner of your eCommerce platform. Many eCommerce vendors such as Magento, BigCommerce, and Shopify Plus demand certain requirements to earn an official “Partner” status, so you can have confidence in the agency’s expertise.
And where can you find a certified Partners for your eCommerce platform? Most eCommerce vendors offers badges for agencies to display or have their own app stores to help connect agencies with customers.
No two agencies are quite the same, and being a certified partner usually comes with fees. If you do consider an agency that’s not a certified partner, be sure to ask them why they don’t participate in that program. The answers can tell you a lot about their focus and strengths.
Looking at other reviews, awards and accolades can help too. Even sites like Glassdoor, which show employee reviews of a business, can tell you a lot about the nature of an agency. Even traditional ratings, such as from the BBB, can be telling.
8. Can you have a “face-to-face” meeting?
Although most of your communication will be via email, before you sign on the dotted line, you want to have a “face-to-face” meeting via zoom, Google hangouts, or some other video conferencing software. Personalities and working styles are nearly impossible to discern from an email. A great way to determine if an agency is a good fit is by speaking to them live.
You’re going to spending a lot of time (and money) with these people. You want to know you can trust them and get along. If the relationship is strained, your project can quickly turn sour.
When you work with people you like and whom you trust, you’ll have a much better development experience and you’ll end up with a better product in the end. Speaking to them fact-to-face you’ll be able to gauge their personalities and set up your project to win.
9. How often do you go over budget? What’s your variance of estimated hours vs. actual hours?
As a rule of thumb, the question here is not if your agency will go over budget, it’s how much.
You need to find out their average variance of estimated hours vs. actual hours.
Industry-standard is 20% – 30%. If you can find an agency that has a history of delivering projects with an average variance of 15% or less, grab ‘em. They’re obviously running a tight ship and you want to be their next passenger.
Our team at 121eCommerce, for example, has a historic variance of less than 6%. That’s pretty low. How do we do it? With a thorough discovery process, detailed scoping and a to-the-minute weekly report. While most agencies don’t get below 10%, any agency that claims a variance of around 15% is worth exploring.
10. What’s your communication style?
While technical expertise ranks high in factors to consider when choosing an eCommerce agency, communication is just as important.
Before you begin working with an agency, make sure you have a clear understanding of their communication style. An agency that uses Slack or another instant messaging software is clearly focused on nimble communication. This creates a better development environment. Especially when things go wrong (and Murphy’s Law says that something will).
You want constant, open and transparent communication. That’s going to keep you happy and your project moving forward.
At 121eCommerce, we’re so gung-ho on communication that we’ve been known to buy clients cameras to have face-to-face meetings.
11. What’s your project management style?
Every agency handles project management differently.
Make sure you understand your eCommerce agency’s project management style.
Do they work in teams? Will you have a dedicated project manager? Who will oversee your project to make sure it stays on track? Will your project be worked on by multiple developers?
These are all questions that need to be answered to give you a clear picture of their management style. Get them answered to avoid future surprises.
12. What’s your development process and how long does it take?
The eCommerce agency you choose should have a detailed development document prepared to share with you. This will help you see exactly what’s involved and what to expect. Make sure they give you a clear timeline. See which areas take the most time and ask, “why?”
A good agency will take their time during the discovery phase to determine your needs and decide if yours is a project they can handle. Be leery of agencies that want to get going right away and “figure it out” as they go. That’s not a good development process and will only lead to frustration and a strained budget.
A good development process can look like this:
Discovery > Scoping > Design and Development > QA > Launch
While it’s not unusual for your scope to have some changes during the course of your project, such as to accommodate the latest Magento patches, or to accommodate a change in one of your business processes, you should start from the most accurate scope possible.
It’s how you keep down overages and launch delays.
13. Do you only provide development services?
This is a fun question.
You need your web developers to be, well, web developers.
If they’re part of a larger agency that also offers branding, marketing, hosting, system integration, or kitchen sinks, that doesn’t automatically mean that they’re not good at development. However, if they’re not truly focused on development, you may wind up with the jack of all trades, and master of none.
Any reputable agency will have a deep network of partners to take care of any functionality or services your store will need. And if they don’t, that’s a red flag number too.
Agencies need to work closely with other experts to meet your holistic needs successfully, without finger pointing. A good agency will have established relationships where they’re confident you’ll be in good hands. It’s why we partner with nChannel to integrate our clients’ ERP, POS or 3PL software with eCommerce platforms like Magento. We know we can work effectively with the nChannel team to launch and maintain websites.
14. What are your typical response times? What’s your availability?
There’s nothing more frustrating than choosing an agency that’s not available when you are. Because when you run an online store, you need answers fast. You can’t afford to wait until tomorrow to handle issues on your site that are impacting your revenue today.
Emails should be answered within a few hours. At the latest, by the end of the day. Again, Slack is a great way to get fast responses. Find out how they handle requests. Does your email go to a general mailbox? What about urgent issues and emergencies? Do they have a dedicated phone line or email address such issues?
Drill down and get hard answers. A great way to test their response time is to send emails with simple questions or requests. Take note of how and how fast they respond. If your request requires some time or research, do they send you an email saying so? Or do they just let you wait?
After seeing their responses to a few of your requests, you’ll quickly see if this is an agency you want to work with.
Time for take-off
Your Apache assault helicopter looks damn good in your driveway.
But it doesn’t belong on the ground. It belongs in the air. With you in the cockpit.
And since you chose an Apache expert to teach you, you can take off with confidence and dominate the airspace (or at least the area above your house).
And since you chose an expert agency with strong technical expertise, you’re now ready to take off and dominate your own eCommerce airspace.
About the Author
Ben Chafetz, CEO of 121eCommerce, a seasoned Magento Professional Partner and web development agency specializing in B2B and B2C eCommerce.