Hiring a digital agency to work with your company is a big decision. Some compare the exercise to hiring a mechanic to fix your car. There are certainly a lot of similarities -- there is usually an imbalance of depth of knowledge between you and the expert; the topics are often technical; and asking the same question of different experts can yield different answers. However, I like to think of hiring a digital agency as more closely analogous to dating and getting married: To be truly successful, you have to be very candid in terms of what you want to achieve in the relationship, and how you prefer to get there; you need to learn and understand how each other work; and the most successful partnerships are generally the ones in which communication is open and honest.
What sorts of questions should your company be asking digital consulting firms or tech agencies before hiring them and getting into a long-term relationship? We're glad you asked!
Q: How do you measure success?
If an agency stumbles this question it insinuates that they don't measure success with any tangible metrics. Some agencies measure success by how beautiful their end results are, but sometimes very pretty things aren't effective at reaching business and sales goals. If the agency you're thinking of hiring takes a data-driven approach, you're likely to have a clear idea of progress and whether or not you're on track to reach goals. If the agency answers this question with something vague, or related to aesthetics only, then consider that this agency might not help you reach your sales or marketing goals.
Q: Our challenges span various disciplines. Can your agency help me solve problems that involve tech, marketing, systems integration, supply chain, and business operations?
If your agency doesn't understand your business holistically, it's likely their recommendations will either be piecemeal, or worse, potentially disruptive to other areas of the business. A lack of holistic understanding could lead to recommendations, systems, and tools that serve their needs well but challenge your sales, admin, and operations teams. An agency that considers how their recommendations will impact your company's productivity, efficiency, and current systems will be more likely to have a positive impact on bottom lines and revenue.
Q: Has your team worked together before?
Good rapport and communication between team members enable individuals to compliment each other and produce stronger results. If you're talking with an agency that relies very heavily on other firms or freelancers, consider that this system can be fraught with inefficiencies, and the likelihood for error and bloated budget increases. While freelancers and outsourcing can sometimes decrease cost, they prevent teams from getting the chance to gel, both together and with their clients. Ideally, the individuals that you initially build a relationship with and negotiate with to kickoff the project are also the people that manage your day-to-day account. Nothing degrades the quality of work faster than senior level managers passing tasks off to junior staff (or even interns!). You want senior level experience and skill levels on your account.
Q: What is the average tenure of employees?
If the agency employs people who've been there for 5-6 years, who like what they do, and have grown with the company ‚ this is a good sign. Employee longevity speaks to both a healthy agency culture, as well as consistent client results. If the agency HR model is more —churn and burn,— where they hire young people who are using the agency as a stepping stone for their career and who have one foot out the door, prepare yourself for a lower quality of work. You don't want your project to be a training model for junior staff - you want a team that has a proven track record of addressing challenges like yours.
Q: Do you specialize in one technology platform, or do you have the capabilities to produce digital experiences in a range of languages and platforms?
If the agency you're considering working with specializes in one or two platforms or languages, they are likely to see these as the best case solution for any challenge that comes their way, even if another solution might be better suited. To get the best solution customized to your needs and goals, consider partnering with an agency that builds custom solutions that pull on a wide range of tools, languages and platforms. Another consideration is that if an agency outsources their UX work, they can't easily coordinate and anticipate the implications for the developers and content strategists, which needs coordination and will expand the budget. Finally, consider that most agencies who outsource talent, mark up that cost and pass the increase on to their client.
Q: How detailed is the proposal and plan the agency is recommending?
Consider how much detail the agency you're considering hiring is providing in their proposal. To protect yourself and also to ensure you understand what you're paying for, it's vital that you know exactly what goes into the project and the defined scope of work. Especially with apps and websites, you don't know what gremlins could be in the code. If it is poorly written by junior developers, hidden bugs and sloppy logic could rear it's ugly head later ‚ costing you money, time, and headaches. Be sure to understand exactly what are you getting and ensure that it meets the needs of today and your anticipated future needs (so you don't have to redo the entire thing all over again a year later).
The best way to ensure a successful project, and to set your company up for long-term success with a digital agency, is to ensure there is a well crafted plan to start your relationship. Whether this plan is simply to engage in a specific discovery method and build a plan, or if it's a detailed breakdown at the start, a well formulated plan is critical. Few tools better demonstrate an understanding of your business and its needs, and showcase the creative and technical acumen to achieve those goals, than a detailed plan that clearly articulates your needs and the approach to meet them. Templated proposals that don't speak to the specifics of your business, challenges, and needs can lead to problems as those ambiguities arise in the execution of a project. Similarly, a plan that has not been sufficiently formulated can often result in —forgotten— deliverables ‚ impacting budgets, timelines, and overall success.
We hope that these suggested questions help guide you to a successful and happy relationship with whichever agency you end up contracting.