Paul Rogers

eCommerce, Digital & Magento Consultant

July 22nd

What to look for in a Magento Agency / Partner

Over the last few years I’ve spoken to hundreds of Magento retailers and I hear regular horror stories about how bad their development agencies are – which is generally because of the selection criteria they’ve followed (or not followed).

I’ve been wanting to write a post about some of the issues my clients have faced for a while now, but I decided it’d be a better read if I asked experienced people within the Magento community to contribute – to provide more guidance on what they believe client-side ecommerce professionals should be looking for in a service provider.

The following people are experts within their fields and they either work client-side, or they work for a very good Magento agency or as a developer.

Here are the things that I referenced within the email I sent to the people that contributed and the things that I believe are important.

  • Client services (the team, the processes and how much emphasis is placed on this)
  • Project team (account management and structure of the team etc)
  • Project management and project processes (inc deadlines, milestones, sign off stages etc)
  • Pricing structure / transparency around this
  • Technical skills / team (inc Magento accreditations)
  • Previous experience (similar projects, experience of developers)
  • Relevance of previous projects
  • Additional services (eg: design or SEO)
  • Reliance on third parties
  • Support services provided / SLA

Here are the answers that were provided:

Mark Slocock – Manager Director at GPMD

Selecting a supplier is very important, the right team combined with a solid strategy will have a huge impact on your business, the wrong team will at a worst case damage your business, and at best mean you will miss out on the huge opportunities online can bring.

When selecting your online team its advisable either to hire a full time Head of Ecommerce or employ an experienced consultant who can help can help and advise you on platform and supplier selection.

First start with platform choice, it will pay dividends in the future if you do your homework first, research the market find the top platforms for your needs be it CMS, Ecommerce, Blogging etc.  Make a shortlist, get a demo, speak to companies already using each platform and make a choice based on your requirements.

Once you’ve chosen a platform find a selection of agencies that specialise in it and get to a shortlist of three.  If you have a large project you could consider sending out an request for an initial response to more suppliers and then shortlist 3 or 4 to come and present.

The first thing to look for in an agency is relevant experience, this doesn’t necessarily have to be in your industry or sector, but experience of the technology you are planning to use.   For example if you want a responsive website only shortlist agencies with previous experience of building them.

Be prepared to share detailed plans with each agency, in particular any objectives for the project, and how you will measure success.  I would always advise setting a range for the investment you are prepared to make and share it, this will allow suppliers to tailor their solutions to this investment.  Be open and honest, the more information you can provide the better solution you will get.  This is particularly important for ecommerce projects.

Make sure you find out the team that will be working on your project, what you don’t want is to have the A team present to you only to find the B or C team will be delivering the project.  I’d always recommend meeting the team, after all you will be working closely with them and its important that you get on!

Getting and understanding of the process the agency uses is vital.  Find out how the initial project will be run, and how additional development and support is handled.  The important thing here is that you understand and are happy with whatever the process is, if you like agile go with an agency that works in an agile way.

A wide range of experience is alway preferable, a Magento ecommerce project has many facets, front-end, functionality, integration, and SEO all need to be got right, experience in all areas or at least an understanding of each will mean things go more smoothly.

The hosting and support for your website should not be left out, find out who will host it and most importantly who is accountable for what if things go wrong.  One thing to not here is not to forget about upgrades, upgrading Magento regularly is strongly recommended make sure you allocate a budget for this in advance.

Finally pricing, its important that the price is inline with your revenue objectives, once you have ascertained that your chosen supplier is capable of delivering what you need, evaluate the price based on this.  You are making an important investment in your business, getting the right team is the most important factor.

Lewis Sellers – Managing Director of Pin Point Designs

When considering a potential Magento partner, I think it’s absolutely vital that you establish whether or not the agencies size and structure are a good fit for your project. It’s often very tempting to pick the largest company, and there’s certainly a time when this is the right thing to do, but working with a smaller agency does have benefits too.

With a smaller company, you will generally be able to speak with the design and development team directly, which helps stop any problems with communication between account managers and the rest of the team. In addition to this, you’ll be able to get a greater insight into the progress of your project, and much more in the way of direct control. Smaller agencies can often be more flexible too, particularly when it comes to incorporating any new features or ideas part way through a project.

Management style is another important consideration – you want to ensure that prospective partners are capable of adapting to new changes on the fly, but it’s just as important to find an agency that’s in the habit of laying out a step-by-step plan with clear deadlines for each individual section of the overall project, otherwise you run the risk of letting your site vanish into development purgatory.

It’s also very important that you vet a potential partner’s previous work. Looking over sites in their portfolio can tell you a lot about how experienced they are when it comes to working with Magento, and also let you know whether or not their style and approach will be a good fit for your project. Don’t be afraid to ask the team about types of projects they’ve done in the past and ask for examples. In some cases, it might be worth asking for a reference from the client just to back things up.

When looking through a prospective agency’s past projects, I’d recommend paying close attention to a few different areas, including the speed with which various pages load, the reliability of the sites they’ve built, and the number of custom applications that they’re in the habit of incorporating. After all, Magento builds are notoriously difficult to optimize, and you want to make sure that you’re choosing an agency that’s up to the challenge!

Rob Petrovich, JonDon

Here are the things that I’d generally look at in a Magento supplier.

Previous experience” – Many companies list their former clients in a portfolio.  I find it helpful to actually speak with them when possible.
I also fully agree with importance of an account manager (on both sides).  I would like to see the platform/tools for communicating with the PM and monitoring the progress.
Is the team employed of the supplier?  Or are they using outsourced help as well?
Indemnification
Training – Is there a dedicated training staff and how much training will the client receive.
Magento Core – Approach to ensure upgrades are as painless as possible.

Danny Clutterbuck – Director at Webtise

Any agency should be set up to deliver results, we all know this but extracting what success actually is comes with a detail of skill.

The fundamental ROI metric of an ecommerce site should be conversion rate. All the fancy dance features should be there to aid users to make a purchase, sign up to an email or hit a goal you have. Sometimes, distractions occur in the process from either agency or client side resulting in a site that doesn’t hit commercial goals.

My advice would be to set and agree what the targets are in advance so everyone knows the end game.

When specifically choosing a Magento agency, it’s key to understand the following:

  • What is their actual retail knowledge like? (e.g. All of our board own or sit on the board of retail businesses)
  • How many certified developers do they have?
  • Do they talk ‘retail’, using metrics such as CPA (cost per acquisition) and Lifetime value?
  • *Important* Do they have specialist Magento technical SEO experience. Go live without this at your peril! Magento sites can be liked pre-packed Google Panda penalties unless sorted in advance of launch.
  • Who controls the project? A magento project manager should carry skills such as data importing, gant chart planning, module recommendations and social skills (like having a beer with clients – it’s important! Well it is for us).
  • Portfolio. Obviously this is important but don’t be put off if the agency you choose has worked with a competitor. This demonstrates learning in your industry and they can ensure you don’t make mistakes.

Simon Wharton – Managing Director at PushOn

Client Services

The first issue you have when selling any form of ECommerce platform, never mind Magento, is the clients knowledge and experience. If the client has an unrealistic expectation, you have to deliver to that unrealistic expectation and no one wins at that. The relationship is all important. It needs to be able to get to the stage, quickly, where either party can say, “You know, that’s just not going to work. This might”. Its regrettable that too many agencies want to screw every penny out of the clients or the client wants to pay peanuts and get the moon on a stick. Both sides need to consider whether they can have a long term and meaningful relationship.

Project team

The client needs to meet the project team which could be several agencies. Our best clients facilitate their agencies meeting up and making the best of their agencies talents. I don’t believe there is a necessary a strict team structure that is necessary bit there are charactersitics of the people that I cherish. Commitment and a sense of ownership being foremost. Shit will fuck up to some degree on any project. Having the relationship where you can minimise that and work together to resolve accurately and rapidly is what makes a successful project. I will say that every build needs an SEO. The curse of most devs. An SEO needs the site to be built well so that they can get their work done. An SEO keeps them honest.

Project Management

Project management is essential but the type of project management depends on the relationship. We’re not necessarily great fans of agile as an absolute.  The lack of absolute definition is difficult for clients. We can’t claim to have coined the phrase but we use a combination of Waterfall and Agile which is waggishly referred to as Wagile.

Pricing Structure

If it’s not on the functional specification, it’s not going to be built. Don’t assume it will be. If you want it built, it will cost you money and deadlines will slip.

Technical Skills

Magento Community can be downloaded and set up by anyone with a reasonable knowledge of MySQL/PHP and they can also mess it up really quickly. We do a lot of rescue work around serious business that hasn’t necessarily brought in the right resource to build the site. The true cost isn’t just the cost of us fixing the site, it’s the revenue foregone for all the team that the site hasn’t been able to attract and convert traffic. You need to use a Magento team that can build a slick, fast site that works as part of an online marketing campaign from the outset. You need certified developers.

Previous skills

It’s handy of the team have built something similar previously. There is nuance about how you build products, how you understand people will convert and how the site might attract traffic.

Additional Services

We don’t consider marketing as additional services. A website is a marketing tool. It should be run by the marketing team to satisfy marketing objectives. You need an SEO on the team. You need UX from the outset and you need conversion skills. The paid search need to talk to you about landing pages and the content specialists need somewhere relevant to stick their output. And then the social team need to be able t0share the majesty of your product or service. They are core to the project but all too rarely considered so.

Third Parties.

Tricky. They can be great. We’ve dealt with some superb Magento partners who have a product that really adds benefit to the client and understand the value for all in working closely with you. There are other 3rd parties that are like something the client has walked in on their shoe. They feel the threat from you. Define responsibilities really quickly and ensure the client has complete understanding of what they are.

Support

So Client, you don’t want a support contract but you do want us to drop everything when you have a problem? It’s not going to happen. We need to maintain a relationship so we know where you are up to and can pro-actively help you keep things in tip top shape. We will of course expect you to hold us to account and respond quickly and appropriately when you need us to. We need to work on your business together.

Paul is an experienced eCommerce Consultant, specialising in working with the Magento platform. Paul works with online retailers and product companies from all over the world and is focused mainly on helping merchants get more from the Magento platform and growing stores (customer acquisition, customer experience, strategy etc).

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