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Supplier selection is a key determining factor as to whether or not your e-commerce or web project will ultimately prove to be successful or not. While you may not be hugely knowledgeable in this space, you still need to adopt the same level of due diligence you would were you appointing a supplier to help with any other part of your business.

We recently published a guide for internet professionals called 'Delivering Successful E-commerce Projects', authored by Martin Newman, and he listed 20 recommendations to help choose an agency or technology vendor.

Many of these tips are relevant for all kinds of internet projects, and not just e-commerce sites, and they're well worth a read whether you work on the client-side or agency-side, to figure out what to look for. Try asking yourself these questions next time you're hunting around for a new supplier...

Best practice recommendations

1. How effectively did the agency / vendor respond to your RFP and brief? Did they challenge any of your objectives? This can be a good sign of an agency able to add value to your strategy. But ultimately you’re likely to opt for the supplier that satisfied most or all of your requirements. However there are many other criteria that you should be considering when making your selection such as the points to follow.

2. Work with a supplier that really wants and values your business. If your account is too low in value and you’re one of their smaller clients, you need to ask yourself and the supplier, will you get the level of service and commitment you require? Remember that most suppliers will over-promise to win the work. Regular meetings are a must, and should be agreed to from the start.

3. Creativity vs optimisation. Is the agency really creative and are they driven by winning awards for creativity, or, are they motivated by helping you to achieve your ROI? Remember to focus on the twin tenets of good design: usability and simplicity. Choose agencies accordingly. 

4. What level of customer retention do they have? As this will provide you with a good indication of their focus. Are they more focused on winning new business or retaining existing accounts? How long have they held all of the client accounts they profess to have? Many e-commerce suppliers have grown fat over recent years due to the huge organic growth in the market and have had more new business coming in than they could handle. As a result, for some, client relationship management and project delivery have not been the focus.

5. Are all of the clients on their credentials currently live accounts? You’ll often find different suppliers doing different things for the same client, therefore it’s key to understand what it is they’re actually delivering for the client and whether or not they’re still working for them.

6. Do you rate the agency’s project management capability? Is the agency’s project management methodology aligned with your skills?

7. Do they meet your technological requirements? Do they have sufficient experience of your choice of technology platform and do they have enough developers in their agency that have these skills? There are many suppliers in the market who purport to implement a specific e-commerce application, but who have no or very little practical experience of having done so.

8. Do they really ‘get’ e-commerce? Or is their focus more on the interactive media and creative elements of the web?

9. Do they fit your culture? The cultural fit between you and your supplier is an important issue. The considerations for this will include their attitude to responding to issues. Ideally you will want some service levels agreed here, but you also want to make sure you’re working with someone who has a strong client focus (and who will therefore respond promptly to you).

10. Ask to see the CVs of all of key members of their team that will be developing your solution. It’s another way to clarify that the team possess the appropriate breadth of skills and depth of experience for the task at hand.

11. Take references from a number of the supplier’s existing clients and look to speak to clients of different size and scale to get a feel for how the supplier treats different clients. Speak to the client’s IT team / key contact and ask about levels of support. Talk to the client’s senior management to get an understanding of costs / benefits.

12. Make a site visit. Get yourself down to their offices and see them in action. Better still, turn up unannounced and that way you get to see them warts and all. You also get to see the true scale of their business. 

13. Do you like them? After all, you might well end up having to work with these people for quite a considerable period. During this time your relationship will be normally put under strain on numerous occasions, therefore if you don’t like them to begin with, are they a partner you can really work alongside?

14. Make sure you talk to enough potential suppliers to begin with. A competitive pitch list should lead to a better and more focused response from suppliers. But don’t have too many on there as that will only act to de-motivate them. The optimum number is between four and six for the first stage, which is when they will show you their credentials. Then narrow it down to a top four for the actual presentations when they respond to your brief. Give them two to three weeks to respond to the brief.

15. Is their bite as impressive as their bark? As part of the RFP and pitch process, make sure you ask them to demonstrate their design capability by designing a home page, a category landing page and a product page for your brand. Even if you end up outsourcing the design or doing it in-house, this will give you a good feel for their ability to understand what the customer experience should be and what journeys your customers will need to take on the site. This tends to separate the men from the boys.

16. How financially stable are they? The growth in the market is flattening and this combined with the difficult economic climate will lead to some agencies going out of business and will drive consolidation in the market.

17. What happens when things go awry? If you have opted for a hosted application provider, then you also need to know what their disaster recovery process and capability is.

18. What’s in the pipeline, and when will it arrive? Again, if you opted for a hosted application provider, you will want to know what their development roadmap looks like as you’ll be tied to this and may to have adjust the timing for your requirements accordingly.

19. Do they have value to add across key elements of the end-to-end e-commerce process? You don’t need to be adopting a full outsourced model in order for this to be relevant. After all, the supplier you select will need to help integrate their platform with various internal systems, as well advise you on what is best practice e-commerce and that is likely to include functionality that impacts upon customer service, supply chain and fulfilment, etc.

20. Value for money. Last but certainly not least does the supplier’s proposal represent value for money for your business? While cost is a key issue, much of the value you derive from a supplier is in their experience and their ability to deliver a solution that is both fit for purpose, and in line with best practice. The level of control you have over content will also determine the value to you as without control, you will require to engage the supplier frequently after you launch the site. The model you adopt will also have a big impact upon the pricing, as certain e-commerce solutions such as SAAS have fairly well defined price parameters (while a bespoke solution could be completely open ended). Remember to build in a reasonable contingency element to your budget, since it is very difficult to achieve a fixed price on a project. 

To see our complete set of recommendations in this area of web project management I suggest you download the Delivering Successful E-commerce Projects report, which contains more than 400 suggestions on how to get from A to B with the minimum amount of fuss.

Chris Lake

Published 1 April, 2009 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

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Comments (9)

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POINT 15. make sure you ask them to demonstrate their design capability by designing a home page, a category landing page and a product page for your brand. Even if you end up outsourcing the design or doing it in-house, this will give you a good feel for their ability to understand what the customer experience should be and what journeys your customers will need to take on the site. This tends to separate the men from the boys.

This is ridiculous. I can understand for a design based project why you would want the potential agency to prove the design skills; but asking them to design a homepage, category and listing page is overkill. Any agency with half a brain will know that the design of these pages will only come after meticulous usability work with end users. Plucking a concept out of the air will get them no where fast. Professional usability work sorts the men from the boys - not designing concepts!!

about 8 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

Hey Neil,

It might be overkill for a smaller website, but I think it is a valid request from the perspective of an e-commerce manager charged with overseeing a £10m project.

I agree with you about usability testing, which will finesse an initial idea, but you don't need users to get the basics in place.

An agency should be able to show some idea of what a product page should contain (in terms of the key content elements, rather than spending hour after hour on design and placement). A wireframe would be enough, and I'd knock up one of those in less than an hour, so I don't think it's too much of an ask.


about 8 years ago


Chris Hoskin

This is a great list.

But I think that #10 ("breadth of skills and depth of experience for the task at hand") hints at another key issue : Has the proposed supplier/agency project team worked together on similar projects in the past?

Team continuity (or low staff turnover) is often overlooked - and there is plenty of evidence that points high productivity in mature / experienced teams.   

I'd expect any supplier/agency (particularly the 'creative' ones) to be able to provide (creative?) CV's.  But do they have real-world experience gained from working as part of a mature team?  That's perhaps the nub of the issue.

Chris from Salmon

about 8 years ago



Good set of questions for customers. I think the main thing is preparation. You need to follow the breif, but also guide them, because businesses are different on the web, you need to plan out the website and show them how and why. The designer definately needs to meet all the customers requirements, but if they feel something will work better in web form - to guide them, not just on the design but the whole sites navigation and marketing strategies.

about 8 years ago

Colin Watson

Colin Watson, Director at Watson Hall Ltd

21. How do they build security into the project lifecycle?  Do they understand your data, your compliance requirements and the security issues for your project?

about 8 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@chris - Yep, staff turnover is another really important thing to consider. Martin has some guidance on this in the report... continuity stuff, in the event that key people bail...

@claire - agreed, and the report is rammed with pre-planning and post-planning advice. There's a bunch of recommendations relating to futureproofing too, given that big projects can take more than a year to build out, and a year is a long time in tech / marketing.

@colin - good point on security. We discuss this in the RFP / project requirements template in the report.

about 8 years ago

Gary Robinson

Gary Robinson, Head of Marketing at Crunch Accounting

9. Do they fit your culture?

Some good points in this list but this one is particularly important to me. The trick is to find an agency that gives you fantastic ROI and fits with you and your company culture.

I've been in a number of pitches where the supplier seems to have a great product offering but they've taken a very heavy sales approach to the presentation and turned me off. Some have even come across arrogant, telling me how I really need to be working with them to be doing my job well.

There is no way I want to work with a company with that approach. The better companies are those that work with me to understand how they can help. They put the customer first rather than the £ signs. That type of agency is more like to win and keep my business.

One other tip I would recommend, is to make it a mandatory requirement of the pitch that the day-to-day account manager is to be in on the presentation. Then during the pitch direct your questions at this person, not the Directors. This will give you a good idea of how your relationship would work if you retained the agency.

Is the person articulate? Are they knowledgable? Are they creative? And could you work with them day in and day out?

If anyone is interested, this tip and others appear in an article I wrote recently -10 Insider Tips to Win a Search Agency Pitch. It's written to the agency audience, but hopefully useful to those considering retaining an agency.

about 8 years ago

Colin Watson

Colin Watson, Director at Watson Hall Ltd

Delivering Successful E-commerce Projects is a very good document.  The Guide's "Overview of RFP Contents" lists "Data security/access" under "Technical Requirements".  There can be a problem pigeon-holing it as a "technical" issue since security includes administrative and physical controls too.  Security requirements should form part of the contract with a supplier and therefore these should be included in the RFP.

Security aspects should be considered throughout the project, including the design stage for example.  "Usability" is listed under "Design Guidelines" and that's probably where "Security" should sit too.  Decisions made earlier in the project affect security and are harder, and more costly, to change later on.

Classifying the information collected, processed, stored and transmitted and defining what level of protection is required in the RFP assists suppliers to bid appropriately.  The requirements and costs may depend on your own location and your customers' locations.  Similarly, if third-party services are used (hosting, SAAS, widgets, web services, etc), ask for these to be defined by the supplier and what the contractual obligations are to each party.

about 8 years ago



Hi Chris, 

Thanks for your comments - check out me blog post on your post!


Cheers, Neil

about 8 years ago

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