In last week's post, we talked a bit about why some clients seem to have experienced so many failed web development projects in the past. In that post, one of the things we spoke about was four key factors that you should focus on when hiring a digital services firm. This week, I want to dig a bit deeper about these factors, as it is indeed essential to carefully consider each one. For those who need a refresher, these are the four primary areas you should take note of during the procurement of a digital agency:
Notice what is missing? Yes – I have excluded cost. Many would say that it is crazy to do so. But stay with me here… Nothing is more expensive than a complete project failure. Either you will lose what you invested, or you'll deploy a faulty project which will negatively impact revenue. As an example, if you hire an agency that is $50 per hour, and spend 100 hours with nothing to show for it, would you have been better off hiring the $100 agency and walking away with actual work product? Of course, you would have been. Cost comparisons shouldn't be your primary deciding factor – in fact – chasing low-cost services can be more of a negative than a positive in the long run. But, let's stick to our main point here, as we've covered that in previous blogs more than once.
With that said, let's now dig into the four factors, and what they mean to you and your project.
There is a reason I put this first. Because, regardless of the next three determinants, if you can't work with someone, everything else is irrelevant. Having zero chemistry with your service provider is a non-starter.
Throughout my career, I've only once seen a client work well with an agency where the agency's ability to communicate on a human level was, to say the least, questionable. And in that instance, the agency principal was challenging to deal with personally but undeniably brilliant, which made it all work out. Personality matters, and by use of the word, I mean the ability of the agency's people to work with you in a highly complementary fashion. You want your agency counterparts to be a good fit, wherein expectations are set and met, and there is a personal level of rapport. In general, you need to know you are working with people you would actually look forward to talking to. Pleasant people. And, people you can learn from. In a choice between two similarly capable individuals, one will almost always choose to work with the person with whom a quality relationship is achievable, and you can walk away from conversations with either a feeling of being a bit smarter or at least feeling good about the interaction.
Many agencies clutter their website with all sorts of quasi-humorous content to show they are hip, young, in-the-know on trends, etc. They market themselves by showing you fancy office space with ping-pong tables, company happy hours, etc. Often, the names of agencies are so weird that you'd have a hard time saying them out loud in a meeting without feeling silly… right? This isn't what I mean by personality.
The ability of the agency and their people to work with you and your team in a seamless way that is conducive to building trust in each other, and developing a long-term relationship is essential to the success of whatever it is you are working on. You can tell which agencies will value your relationship early in the sales process. Some in the agency space believe the idea of making themselves the "prize" is the right approach to business development. They argue that people are naturally drawn to those who pull away. I don't know if this approach signifies that the agency is interested in working with you, and if they aren't interested in working with you, how then can they do their best work?
Focus on a personal connection with your agency counterparts. One that is legitimate and sincere. And, finally, also take note of how they interact with each other. No one wants to work with a team that has an internal relationship that is toxic. That doesn't benefit you in the least.
Obviously, capabilities are extremely important when hiring any service provider. And I know it's difficult for you to properly evaluate whether or not someone is competent at the service they say they can offer. We'll talk more about processes and outcomes in a bit, which are two areas that can help you determine just how capable an agency is. In this section, though, I want to look at capabilities a bit more broadly. I would ask you to focus on the ability of an agency to provide results based on a collection of skills rather than just a single one. So, this means looking into their toolshed and ensuring that they have more than just hammers hanging on the wall. Because we all know – when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
There is one undeniable truth to digital services: there are always a hundred different ways to do the job, and based on your particulars, a service provider should narrow down to the best fit in terms of solutions. In my experience, unless you are in a field that requires a particular, tight niche to a specific solution, you need to evaluate all of your options.
The problem is that many agencies only have one or two solutions to offer. It's WordPress, or nothing else, as an example. This is a significant disservice. An agency that can only do one thing well isn't providing you with the due diligence to ensure that the solution is correct for you - they are just fitting you into their offering, which is more or less productized. They are just selling you what they know to do, rather than solving problems creatively in a bespoke manner.
So, in terms of evaluating capabilities, you should ask prospective agencies about projects they've done with different tools or technologies and how they chose those solutions. What solutions were considered? Why did they choose the one they chose? What were the pros, cons of the other approaches? And, finally, what projects have they completed by using the alternative options?
Processes are essential – almost every efficient business has them. Whether it's buying a car or taking out a loan. Or, to compare more accurately to what we do in the digital world, let's say building a house. No matter what, businesses need processes to run efficiently and deliver the best possible product to the customer.
Yet, how many agencies have documented processes that they can share and outline for you early in the business development relationship? Sadly, not many.
You can efficiently work through this problem on your initial call with a designer or developer. Ask them to produce process documents, case studies, anything that shows their processes, and how they have used this process to produce positive outcomes (our next section).
Imagine hiring a home builder who couldn't walk you through the steps required in building your home, unable to tell you about the individual characteristics of each step in the process and the risks that may crop up along the way? Would you have confidence in that builder?
The same applies to digital services. If you are looking to hire a company to help you with an ongoing maintenance account for your website or application, they better have a series of steps they use to onboard you. How do they start to implement a development environment, audit the code in place, solidify deployment steps, work to maintain communication with you? All of this should be second nature to them.
This isn't to say that perhaps, on occasion, we should bend on our processes to better serve a client. Of course, an agency should! Any professional services organization should do so from time to time. That's common sense. But the process must exist as a baseline from which all new projects emanate.
The final factor you must consider when hiring a digital agency is past outcomes. For the most part, clients research this in two ways. First, they look at portfolios, case studies, or other agency-produced documentation that highlights past efforts. These are good to see but also remember that they are agency produced so they will always be in the best possible light.
Secondly, prospective clients often talk to references. And that's great – speaking with references is an excellent way to evaluate risk and hear from current or past clients about their experiences. Granted, an agency won't ever send you a negative reference. But, identifying with the story a reference can provide will help you overcome last-minute objections or fears of signing a contract.
Outcomes, though, are more than just those two steps. For you, they mean understanding how someone similar to you progressed from concept to the finalization of the project. What challenges came along the way? These are essential questions to ask both references plus the agency. They may show you their best work – but what did the project look like initially? What were the 2 or 3 implementation methods that were discussed? And along the way, what are a couple of challenges that could have potentially derailed the project. These are the questions you want to ask because it'll give you a sense of how the agency overcame challenges with solutions that were specific to that situation. That's the type of ingenuity that you want.
I'm often frustrated by how many people acquire the services of agencies poorly because they are focused on the wrong things. Hopefully, this post sheds a bit of light on the most critical areas you should fix your attention on before initiating with a digital services agency. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out and say hello!