I work with a lot of retailers who are either in the process of replatforming or about to start a replatforming project and one of the most common things I get asked is around the initial qualification questions that should be covered / discussed within the various phases of the sales process.

These questions have been collated from projects I’ve been involved in and aren’t necessarily relevant to all retailers. I’ve tried to keep them relatively generic and then provide more detail on where they’re applicable and what you should be looking to get back from the partner.

Here are some of the questions I’d generally ask an agency as part of the sales process to gauge their approach to the project.

Do you have experience of working on similar projects (based specific attributes of the project – e.g. B2B, international, D2C etc)?

I would say that a partner having directly relevant industry (or project type) experience isn’t essential – as there are lots of other, more important areas that can dictate the quality of an agency / team, depending on what the project is. Generally, this would be something like international projects or B2B projects, which is likely to be quite important, but if the agency doesn’t have experience within your niche, it’s not the end of the world.

This could be more applicable for larger businesses with more specific requirements (e.g. a large, complex direct-to-consumer roll-out), where they’d benefit more from the partner having experience.

There is a risk to working with a supplier who hasn’t work on an international eCommerce project before for example, but equally if the project is managed correctly and the discovery is comprehensive enough (and your team possess the knowledge that’s needed), an agency could still be a good fit (if they score well in other qualifying areas).

What is your experience with the platform and specific versions of the platform (with details of live websites for each)?

Here you’re looking to qualify a partner’s experience of working with the platform and also get an idea of the complexity of their previous projects. You don’t want to be a guinea pig and ideally if it’s a new platform (Magento 2 and Magento Cloud were both good examples of this) you want the partner to have gone through the pain and have a good handle on the specific components etc.

Ideally, you’d also be looking to ensure that the project team has extensive experience of working on complex builds etc.

What does your likely / proposed project team for the account look like and who are the key points of contact?

I think this is a really important question – understanding the entire project team and where they’ll be involved can be really beneficial, as you’ll get an idea of what resource is being allocated and where. This can also help to understand higher estimates a bit more and also how complex the partner sees the project as being. You’re ideally looking to qualify the senior people on the account and identify any bottlenecks.

Key things to look out for here are:

  • Allocation of a solutions specialist / architect for larger projects
  • Do they have a BA resource / team
  • Team / people being allocated to the discovery
  • Number of developers being assigned to the project and the different phases (and the split between back-end, front-end, devops etc)
  • The account management team / offering
  • The role of the project manager
  • QA resource

I would bear in mind that this is unlikely to be confirmed at this stage, so just make it clear that you’re just looking for an indication.

How long will the project take?

Most eCommerce teams will be working to a deadline, so this is a good question to ask to get an idea of the agencies approach. This should be followed up with questions on the duration of other projects the agency has worked on and the timelines for the different areas of the project. Ideally, the proposed timing would be broken down / itemized so you can make changes if the suggested go-live date isn’t in-line with expectations.

Do you have experience of managing a similar organisational structure / project team / business?

This would only really be necessary if the team is structured in a way that could impact the project or add complexity – e.g. a multi-territory, multi-stakeholder client relationship etc. This example, in particular, is quite important, especially if you’re dealing with a systems integrator across multiple teams (e.g. separate international offices or separate business units).

Details of ability to serve the different teams / stakeholders

If your company has multiple teams involved in the project, I’d recommend discussing how the team will facilitate for managing the different teams, especially if they’re in different locations and potentially span different time zones.

Again, this only applies to larger companies or multi-brand / multi-territory teams.

What does the organisation structure look like and what is the total headcount against each department?

This is an important question to ask to get an idea of the size of the agency and how the team is broken down. Often, agencies that appear to be quite large can have different offerings etc and they may not have the level of resource to make you feel comfortable.

What does your current schedule look like and can you resource this work against our expected timelines?

Again, this is an important question as a lot of good agencies will often be very busy and are likely to have other builds / large projects on. I would delve a bit here and ask about the other projects they’re working on currently and the capacity of their teams.

Capacity can often directly influence the timeliness of a project – I’ve worked on a number of builds where agencies having issues on other projects has ended up delaying a different project.

Questions on their support / maintenance offering, packages etc and what is and isn’t covered.

It good to get an understanding of what the relationship looks like beyond the initial build, in order to identify any larger costs (e.g. min. £3k maintenance retainer), understand the agency’s preferred approach to working (BAU dev within maintenance retainer for example, structuring all work within sprints etc). It’s also good to delve a bit on how on-going work is prioritized.

Questions around on-going development options (retained vs non-retained) and how this is approached (planning, timelines, and scheduling, account management, types of work completed, approach to ring-fencing of time, whether time can be carried over etc)

Most agencies have different setups when it comes to structuring ongoing work, so it’s good to understand this from the start – it’s also good to get an idea of how things like account management and project management work here (and whether this incurs additional costs).

I’d say that 95% of agencies prefer a retained approach to working on-going, which is fine, it’s just a different mindset for merchants who aren’t used to this. Generally, a retained relationship will work better for both parties, as work is planned and prioritised and the agency is able to allocate time in advance.

Contract terms and costings

Another area that merchants often don’t like is being tied to a contract, but again, you need to consider the agency here, who are resourcing based on planned work. Again, a lot of merchants do understand this and how it works with the agency business model, but a lot don’t also. This is something to understand, but it’s certainly not a bad thing to agree to a 12 or 24 (if there’s an incentive) contract for on-going work. I’ve often agreed with merchants to sign a maintenance contract after the build, just so the merchant has more of an idea of how the agency works and they’re more confident in the provider.

Hourly / daily rates is another really important factor – but I would urge retailers to look beyond this, as there’s a lot more to “cost” than an hourly rate. I worked with a provider once who charged €30 per hour for on-going work, but they consistently estimated 3-4x higher than other agencies. Things like the areas that are billable can also influence overall “cost”, as some agencies may bill a lower rate, but charge for ancillary services etc. This could warrant a post in itself, but if you’re conscious of costs, I’d just be mindful of all of the different factors and not just the hourly rate. There’s also a quality multiplier in my experience – if you want higher quality output and less QA overhead etc, rates are higher.

Previous projects the provider is proud of

This is a common question that just gives you an idea of other projects the agency has worked on – ideally, they’d provide detail on why the project was complex and why they’re proud of it too, as just having an attractive front-end often doesn’t really validate their work.

You should also ask questions about these projects and ask to speak to these clients as reference points.

Where are your team based?

The whereabouts of different team members is a good thing to be aware of, as it can be a risk to work with a provider with an entirely off-shore development team etc. Questions to ask here if they do have a lot of off-shore or remote workers is around the proportion of the team that this applies to, how the teams are managed, what processes they have in place to prevent this causing issues etc.

Some of the best agencies I’ve worked with have had large amounts of remote or off-shore team members, but it’s something that it’s good to get clarity on to add confidence.

If there are any questions you think should be added here, please email [email protected] or comment below. You can also read my eCommerce RfP guide.