If you’re thinking about redesigning your firm’s website, what should you be looking for in a design or development partner? While the typical redesign takes about 6-8 months to complete, your new website will likely live with your firm for 3-5 years. So, picking the right agency is extremely important.
Our agency has been designing websites since the mid 90’s. Over the years I’ve read hundreds of requirements documents, and I’ve talked with lots of clients about why they did or didn’t hire us. Sometimes the answers are quite intelligent and articulate. Other times, the answers are so uninformed that they’re borderline irresponsible.
That said, like any professional service it’s difficult to evaluate an agency as an advisor before you’ve actually experienced working with them. So, what should you be thinking about? And, what questions should you be asking? I believe you should be validating your agency in 7 areas.
#1 – Knowledge and Expertise
Any time you’re hiring an agency, you’re really hiring their tangible expertise and unique perspective solving problems like yours. That expertise should relate both to the nature of the web and where it’s going and the unique business challenges of an architecture or engineering firm. For the most part, you should be able to find answers to most of these questions directly within the content sections of the agency’s website. Some examples of questions you might like answers to:
- How do we optimize our site for search?
- What are calls-to-action? What role should they play in an A/E firm’s website?
- How should we prioritize thought leadership relative to our portfolio? What are best practices for managing our portfolio?
- How can our site be more useful to our business development efforts?
#2 – Systems Thinking and Understanding
A firm’s website used to operate in isolation as a simple piece of communication — a modestly interactive brochure, so to speak. These days, most sites are just one element of an integrated set of technologies used to attract potential clients and nurture them towards a conversation with your business development team. Some questions you might like answers to:
- What content management systems (CMS) does the agency generally recommend? Why?
- What experience does the agency have with customer relationship management (CRM)? Do they understand what it is and how it works? Can they offer advice on how to make CRM work better for you? Do they understand the business development process in an A/E firm?
- Is the agency using marketing automation? Which software does it prefer? Why?
- Is the agency using these technologies in its own business?
- Does the agency know anything about knowledge management? Digital asset management?
#3 – Client Onboarding Process
A good agency should have a clear approach to initiating a client relationship. It shouldn’t rely on you to have all the answers. It should have a formalized approach for assessing your current situation and making recommendations for improvement — a clearly defined, repeatable diagnostic. Some questions you might like answers to:
- What is the agency’s formalized diagnostic process to understand your firm’s current situation and identify gaps between where you are and where you’d like to be? What does it cost?
- Does the agency have a master engagement process? What does it look like? What happens during each phase?
- How does the agency handle the critical transition from site strategy to creative development?
#4 – Project Planning
Most web initiatives either succeed or fail within the first 60 days of the project. The planning process is the most critical part of a web redesign. How effective your agency’s planning process is will make or break your project. At Rattleback, our web design process starts with an 8-week greyscreen prototyping process. The greyscreen prototype is used to define the user experience and establish all the critical site functionality. It becomes a fully functional working blueprint of your site. Most critically, the greyscreen prototyping process improves decision-making and reduces the likelihood of unexpected cost overruns later in the project. Some questions you might like answers to as it relates to project planning:
- How will your agency work with you to define the site’s information architecture and user experience?
- How long does it take and what is expected of you?
- Who, from the agency is involved in this process? Who leads it?
#5 – Approach to Development
PHP, HTML5, mobile devices, systems integration, open source, CSS, CMS, JQuery. The Internet has become a much more user-friendly, useful place. But, to get us there, web development has become increasingly complex. Even really large agencies are likely to have external development partners involved in building your site — this is perfectly fine. That said, it’s important for you to understand what’s going to be done developmentally and how it’s going to get done. Some questions you might like answers to as it relates to development:
- What aspects of development will be done externally?
- How frequently has the agency worked with that development partner?
- Where are external development partners located?
- What confidence do you have that the site will be coded correctly?
- What experience does the development partner have building applications that scale? Will the site’s development be capable of handling growth and spikes in web traffic?
#6 – Budgets and Ongoing Costs
While no two websites are exactly the same, your agency partner should be able to offer a fairly accurate expectation of costs even if the project is somewhat undefined in the early stages. If the project is too complex to offer a fixed fee, the agency should fall back on its defined diagnostic process and offer a fixed fee just for that work — using the diagnostic to get a more formal assessment of the project’s total cost. Some questions your agency should be able to answer:
- What typical budgets is the agency used to working with?
- What have projects similar to yours cost in the past?
- What are the biggest drivers of cost overruns?
- What type of support will be needed after the site launches? What will that cost?
#7 – Portfolio and Past Experience
The biggest mistake I see firms make is selecting an agency almost exclusively on their past portfolio. They’ll look at the agency’s web portfolio and say, “I like that site; can you design something like that for us?”
This thinking is fundamentally flawed for a number of reasons. While the technologies underlying sites may be similar, your firm is unique. Your site should be a unique representation of your firm. Any agency worth its salt should be capable of developing a creative solution that speaks to the unique personality, culture and strategy of your firm. In fact, your agency should have a formalized creative process for making that happen.
While you should be comfortable that your agency has the creative skills necessary to produce high quality creative, it shouldn’t be the sole determinant of your selection process — it’s 7th on this list for a reason. The real questions you’d like to know from the agency’s portfolio:
- What were the objectives of the sites you’ve designed for firms like mine?
- How do you know if you accomplished them?
- What unforseen roadblocks did you experience in the client engagement?
- How did you overcome them?
Wrapping it Up
Hopefully, this post helps you make a better decision when it comes time to hire an agency to redesign your firm’s site. Keep in mind, the process you take to hiring an agency is as important as the questions you ask to pick the right one.
My best advice is this — skip the RFP; pick up the phone and talk to the agencies you think you might like to work with. You’ll get a much better sense of what an agency is like to work with based on a few simple conversations than you could ever get from some laborious structured RFP process. More importantly, the best agencies will not likely respond to your RFP anyway.