Changing ecommerce agencies is a big job, even if you’re sticking with the same platform and looking for a different agency to maintain and optimise your existing site.

Migration can be a cheaper alternative to a complete re-build, providing you choose the right agency by asking timely questions.

The below will be a good starting point for discussions.

1. How agile are you?

Heaps of agencies claim to be agile but you’ll want to check your expectations on workflow and practices are aligned before you sign up. 

You might want to consider the following in your negotiations:

  • Visibility of all tasks being worked on, ideally on JIRA.

 Scrum board

  • Daily communication with your project manager and developers.
  • Ability to prioritise your backlog of user stories and bug fixes and willingness to adjust prioritisation when things change.

  • Trust your agency to estimate tasks in either hours or story points so that you know how many tasks will be delivered that month.
  • Have a set monthly retainer to spend each month on site maintenance and optimisations (whilst keeping question four in mind), rather than an ad hoc pot of money for development work.
  • Clarity on acceptance criteria. Detailing exactly what you expect the task to enable the user to do, what it should look like, how it should work, what it should and shouldn’t affect (nothing is too obvious), is so crucial to avoid misunderstandings and ensure a task passes customer testing first time.
  • Clear accountability. Ensure tasks are thoroughly tested by the developers before being handed to you to go through with a fine tooth comb. Ideally another developer should review the developer’s work, then it should go to their internal QA team, and only if it passes both those steps should it be passed to the client to sign off.

2. What does support include? 

Every agency will charge for support differently. Some agencies might include a bit of development time in your support fee, others will clearly distinguish between ‘How do I…?’ advice and investigation work needed by developers to fix bugs.

There’s not necessarily a right or wrong way, just so long as you’re clear what the escalation processes are and who your points of contact are for different issues. 

For instance, your agency may have a support desk as the first port of call, which is suitable for emailing questions like ‘How do I do xyz in the admin?’ or ‘Why can’t I get this roundel to show up on that product page?’. 

If there’s a serious Priority 1 issue though (e.g. the site goes down or you can’t access the checkout page), then you’ll want to be able to phone your project manager and expect them to look into it within the hour, depending on the service level agreement that you sign. 

3. How much do you charge per hour?

Obviously pricing will depend on the agency, but try to make sure you get a like-for-like comparison so that you can easily compare hourly rates across the different agencies that are tendering (some might quote daily rates for instance). 

Agencies may charge different amounts depending on whether it’s front-end, back-end or strategy work. You’ll also be paying for your project manager’s time, so don’t forget to factor that in. 

What may sound like more than enough hours per month on these may transpire not to be, because it has to include all internal meetings your agency has about your work (e.g. weekly estimation meetings, daily stand ups), as well as the likelihood of more than one developer working on the same task.

Some agencies will charge for client meetings, others will use their discretion. 

4. How often can I flex the retainer?

Your stakeholders are pushing for Feefo reviews, or you may want to bring forward gift wrapping in time for the Christmas trading period. Whatever it is, there may be some months when you want to increase your monthly retainer to deliver functionality quicker. Running out of budget half way through the month is really frustrating for all involved. 

Similarly, if you’re running a small business, budget for development may need to be diverted to other costs for a couple of months. 

Make sure that the contract allows you to decrease or increase your retainer when you need to. It’s only fair to give your agency notice because they’ll need to ensure there is available resource if it’s an increase, but check that the notice they’re asking for is reasonable.

5. Will I have access to developers?

The ability to communicate directly with developers is a deal-breaker, be it via Slack or a project management platform like JIRA.

Of course, your project manager plays a pivotal role in briefing the team on tasks, but rather than he or she having to be the interface between you and the dev team when they have questions, I’ve found it much more cost and time-efficient to answer the developers’ questions directly, especially when you’re writing your own user stories and acceptance criteria.

You know better than anyone how you expect the functionality to work and you don’t want anything lost in translation. Provide anything you can to make your expectations clear – mock ups, screenshots and videos all help.

6. Who owns the code?

Firstly, check your existing supplier’s contract: if they own the code, it could be difficult and costly to migrate the code base as is to a new agency. It may end up being more cost-effective to re-build rather than to strike a deal.

If you own the code, then you should be able to migrate to a new agency (see next question), but you want to make sure code ownership is written into the new supplier’s contract too to future-proof yourself, bearing in mind the average ecommerce site’s lifecycle is five or six years.

7. Experience of migrating old code as well as building new sites?

It’s never a new supplier’s preference to take over another agency’s code base. Migrations are cheaper than total rebuilds, and agencies will usually try to sell-in the re-build over a migration. Once you’ve honed in on a new supplier, request a code audit to ensure they can take over the code base, maintain it and extend it going forward. 

A decent agency will do the audit objectively, and should tell you which areas of the code may be areas of concern (usually third-party extensions or customisations by the incumbent supplier). 

Do take it with a pinch of salt though; there may be an element of sucking teeth at another workman’s work, and the site doesn’t have necessarily have to pass with flying colours to be portable.

8. Do you outsource any development?

Understandably, agencies often won’t volunteer this information without being asked directly.

While outsourcing developers enables smaller agencies to offer cheaper hourly rates, you can sometimes risk quality, not to mention on a basic level, it’s tricky to work with developers in different time zones if you don’t want to be camping out in the office.

9. Who looks after hosting?

Your new agency will most likely have a preferred hosting provider. If you’re very happy with your existing hosting company, stick to your guns, as it could keep costs down not changing servers. 

However, if it’s a pre-requisite for the new agency to use their hosting supplier, negotiate on cost, and decide whether you’d prefer to look after the hosting relationship directly or whether you’d rather your agency did this.

In conclusion...

Migrating to an alternative agency can inject new ideas, enthusiasm and proactivity into your ecommerce site, which can come together to increase conversion rate and ultimately turnover of your site through carefully crafted acceptance criteria, properly tested functionality and well-considered changes.

Asking the right questions before you commit to a migration can help to ensure the new agency will be able to deliver the strong partnership that you’re after and ultimately the return on investment that your stakeholders will expect.

To learn more on this topic, book yourself onto one of Econsultancy’s ecommerce training courses.

Emma Forward

Published 15 March, 2017 by Emma Forward

Emma Forward is the Ecommerce Manager at the Royal Academy of Arts and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can connect with her via LinkedIn.

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Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

Re: "If there’s a serious Priority 1 issue though (e.g. the site goes down or you can’t access the checkout page), then you’ll want to be able to phone your project manager and expect them to look into it within the hour" !!!!!!!!

Bit difficult to tell the precise roles from this article, but if someone was running my website I'd (a) expect them to have automatic monitoring in place - not rely on me to phone them and (b) act very quickly. A lot of outages can be fixed in minutes if you "turn it off and on again".
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nn2FB1P_Mn8

8 months ago

Mark Appleton

Mark Appleton, Managing Director at Resolving Digital LTD

Nice choice of clip Pete!

"1. How agile are you?" - what if, as a client, you're not agile? A lot of companies aren't setup to run or be involved in agile projects, it has plenty of advantages but it's not the be-all-and-end-all.

"Daily communication with your project manager and developers." - I'm sure everyone would love daily comms but that's going to cost & are you really getting value for money having daily contact during a build sprint for example? Also, you wouldn't have a project manager if you were dealing with an agile agency, there isn't a PM role in agile.

"Trust your agency to estimate tasks in either hours or story points" - if you're talking about an agile agency they shouldn't be estimating in hours, that wouldn't be agile.

"5. Will I have access to developers?" - this would take the project manager out of the loop in most occasions and if you're having daily contact...?

"While outsourcing developers enables smaller agencies to offer cheaper hourly rates, you can sometimes risk quality, not to mention on a basic level, it’s tricky to work with developers in different time zones" - this is a very old-school view on outsourcing, particularly when you talk about things like Slack earlier. Outsourcing has moved on since the days of quality issues, even Google outsources the build of its products (Analytics for example)

8 months ago

Kurt Dressel

Kurt Dressel, Director at KD Consult Ltd

While every client has a different set of circumstances and requirements, I think Emma highlights some good points to consider when making a change. Having been on the supplier services side of things, I appreciate it when a client takes the time to think things through instead of just rushing in as it can help to avoid awkward situations later in the take over process. Agree that there are communications platforms to help facilitate quick updates, but all clients are not necessarily comfortable with these, so the best process for keeping everyone on the same page needs to be agreed in each situation.

8 months ago

Osvaldo Spadano

Osvaldo Spadano, CEO at Elastera

There are some very good points made by Emma in this post, which clearly are coming from a fair amount of experience and also "war stories".
 
Visibility and Collaboration are paramount. They are more than just agility, they are the foundation for a honest and long-lasting relationship.
 
Very good point about the maintenance retainer. Way too often both merchants and agencies focus on feature developments, they seem unable to prioritise and implement performance and maintenance optimisations, amazingly even when provided with a clear direction on what to do and the benefits.
 
I really like the idea of direct access to developers too! So much misunderstanding, overhead and rework can be avoided! Effective collaboration should be a priority above the ego of Product Managers and Scrum Masters ;-)
 
I'd add the ability and courage by the agency to question what is being asked to be implemented. Too many agencies simply implement what they've been asked to do, which initially may make them look good; however, on the long-run that can create some really bad and costly problems. I've seen agencies really good with Agile and using the right tools such as Jira, Kanban, Sprints and so on. However, they were less good with questioning, which led to missing the opportunity to do the right things right for their customers, instead of doing the wrong things done right.
 
Clear accountability is important. However, asking developers for accountability when their team/employer don't have well established development and deployment processes, it is asking for a daily heroic efforts. it is best to assess the agency's level of maturity regarding development and delivery processes. For that you may need an experienced CTO / Head of Technology. If you do not have one, there are some great CTO-on-demand services nowadays provided by some experienced CTOs.
 
Avoid total lock-in, don't buy into the one-stop-shop / full-service idea. The "single throat to choke" is an old adage, that doesn't stand on its feet anymore. Better to have grown-up specialists able to work together, keep each other honest, without having the merchant triaging every single step of the way. This requires a particular mind-set and a strong customer oriented attitude, so check for that. Separate concerns and only work with partners who can work with other partners - that is a real test of maturity.
 
I agree with Pete's previous comment: if you need to call the "support desk" to say that the site is down or the checkout does not work, then there is something fundamentally wrong. Your partners should know about those issues before you know about it. They should be calling you and tell you that they are working on it. I agree slight less with "turn it off and on again" :-) Seriously, you want to look for that obsessive root-cause-analysis attitude to make sure problems don't happen again. Look for problem-killers. Having said that, obviously it depends on the SLA and to be honest this is not straight forward to have with traditional hosting providers or without a retainer with the agency.
 
Great post Emma, thank you for sharing your experience and I hope to see more of these at eConsultancy!
 
Best,
 
    Osvaldo

8 months ago

Tim Stainthorpe

Tim Stainthorpe, Client Services Director at Eclipse Group Solutions Ltd

Thank you for posting this Emma.

For a lot of retailers choosing a new eCommerce partner is a daunting prospect and your
article highlights some key areas for consideration.

One of the reasons we are asked to take over from an existing agency is that a project or relationship has failed or is breaking down. In these circumstances the selection process can happen during crisis mode and important considerations might get lost in the turmoil.

Failure is costly and further failures can be catastrophic.
All too often the root causes don't get addressed and the cycle just continues with another partner, some of whom are inexperienced and promise the earth but inevitably under-deliver.

Before getting caught in this cycle take a step back and ask " Is it us?? " and look to change if so.

Pace is a always a key factor for our clients and experience has taught us that true, sustainable pace cannot be achieved without solid foundations from both organisations and a commitment to a 'one team' approach.

Better planning, better processes and better execution is needed.
The partner can then move from treating symptoms to ongoing delivery of business value and the customer can stop firefighting and concentrate on servicing their own customers and focus on their conversion goals and growing their business.

A long term relationship built on joint success then avoids the need to look for a new partner in the first place which is always a painful time for both parties.

Tim

8 months ago

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Karina Gram, HR manager at findlender

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8 months ago

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Marta Kahnych, Marketer at IT

Thanks for such an awesome article! These questions can really come in handy for all merchants decided to switch to another solution. If all highlighted points we've taken into consideration by eCommerce platforms, there would be a perfect opportunities for business growth.

Besides, I really adore the idea of direct access to developers. It would help to predict much of rework and frustrating experience.

Some of more interesting points I found in this article- https://goo.gl/SEMevg but in this case they all concern store owners. I think if to combine your questions to eCommerce platform supplier and their questions every store owner should ask himself before switching, it`s just an invaluable content for all merchants;)

Thanks again for sharing! Looking forward to seeing more great posts.

4 months ago

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