Qualifying Questions To Ask Every eCommerce Agency

Author: Myk Baxter

As an eCommerce consultant, I have worked with a lot of retailers who are either working to re-platform or about to embark on a re-platforming project. Whilst in the consultation phase I often get asked about the initial qualification questions that need to be covered/or discussed during the sales process. 

The questions below have been collated from my experience & from the projects that I’ve supported, but they are all not necessarily relevant to all the retailers within the sector. For ease, I’ve kept these as generic as possible, then provided more detail on where they should be applied & what you as a business owner should be looking to gain back from the partner. 

Let’s start with some questions that I’d generally ask your desired consultant, as part of the sales process to gauge their chosen approach to your project. 

Do you have experience working on similar projects (based on the specific attributes of the project at hand – for example; B2B, D2C)?

In my personal opinion, having a partner that is directly involved or has experience in the relevant industry (or chosen project type) isn’t essential – there are plenty more important areas that should be considered when it comes to the quality of a consultant & their agency, depending on the project. In general, this will either be an international project or a B2B project, which are likely to be quite important, but it’s not vital if they don’t have great knowledge of your niche.

This could be most often applied to larger businesses with a more niche requirement (such as those that have a complex direct-to-consumer turnaround), which in this instance you may benefit more from partnering with someone who has experience. 

Understandably, there is a risk to working with a partner who hasn’t, for example, worked on an international eCommerce project before. However, if the project is managed correctly, the discovery is thorough enough & your team holds the knowledge that’s needed, your chosen partner could still be a great fit.

What is your experience with (your chosen) platform & the specific versions of the platform? (also to gain an understanding of details of live website for each one) 

With this question, you’re looking to gain knowledge of your partners’ experience of working with the platform & to find insight into the complexity of their previous work. You don’t want to be a trial run & if it’s a new platform (such as Magento 2 & Magento Cloud) you want the partner to have hit every possible bump & have great experience working with each specific component. 

You also want to look at ensuring they have extensive experience when it comes to working on complex builds.

What does the proposed project team for the account look like? & who are the key points of contact?

This is one of the most important questions to ask in the early stages of onboarding. Understanding the entire team working on the project & where they’ll be involved will allow you to gain an idea of what resources are being allocated & where they will be managed. Asking this can also help you break down the higher estimates more & identify how complex the partner sees the project being. You ideally want to qualify the senior people working on the account, & finally, identify any jams that may arise. 

The key points to look at are: 

  • Do they have a BA resource/team?
  • The allocation of a solutions specialist/or architect for larger projects
  • What team members/individuals are being allocated to the discovery?
  • How many developers are being assigned to the project & its different phases (for example, the split between back-end, front-end, etc.)
  • Who is your account management team/offering?
  • To understand the role of the project manager.
  • Your QA resource. 

I must note, that these points are unlikely to be confirmed in the early stages, just in case you’re looking for a full indication. 

How long will the project take to complete? 

The majority of eCommerce agencies will work towards a deadline, so asking this good question will allow you to gain an idea of their working approach. Follow this up with questions based on the duration of other projects they’ve worked on and the timelines of each process. In an ideal case, the proposed time will be broken down/itemised – allowing you to make changes if their suggested go-live date doesn’t fit your expectations. 

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

This only applies if your team is structured in a way that may impact the project or add complexity – for example, a multi-stakeholder/or territory-client relationship. If this particular example applies to you, it is quite important to address if you’re dealing with a system integrator across numerous teams (such as if you were in separate international offices or business units). 

Asking for details of their ability to serve the different stakeholders/teams

If you’re in the position above, I recommend discussing how your partner will facilitate this, especially if they’re in different locations & have different time zones. 

What is your organisation’s structure & what is the total headcount for each department? 

In most cases, those agencies that may appear quite large can have different offerings and as a result, may not have the level of resources to make you feel secure in the project. With this in mind, it’s important to get an idea of the size of their team and how it is broken down.

What does your current schedule look like & can you provide the resources needed to meet our expected timelines? 

Good consultants will naturally often be very busy & are likely to have other large projects on, but you want to ensure yours is delivered on time & to a good standard. Therefore, you want to delve in here & ask about what they’re currently working on and the capacity of their team’s workflow. 

Their capacity can often influence the timings of a project & I’m well aware that other projects can end up delaying a different one.

Ask questions based on their support/maintenance offering & what is and isn’t covered in this. 

It’s always a great idea to get an understanding of what your partnership will look like beyond the initial eCommerce build & to be aware of any larger costs (how much do they charge for maintenance, etc). Identify the agency’s preferred approach to working (is your developer within a maintenance retainer for example). Delve into how ongoing work is prioritised as well. 

Presenting questions based around ongoing development options (are they retained or non-retained) and how this is approached (can time be carried over, scheduling, account management etc)

Consultants will have varied setups when it comes to organising ongoing work, so it’s good to have an understanding of this from the start. Also, insure how things stand with account management and project management work & if this comes with an additional cost. 

The majority of these will prefer a retained approach when it comes to ongoing work, which is all fine and well but needs to be approached with a different mindset if you’re not used to this. With a retained relationship, these work best as work is planned and prioritised with an allocated time given in advance. 

Contract terms & costings

Whilst you may not like to be tied to a contract, remember to consider this beneficial to being prioritised for additional work. A lot of agencies will only come with this process, so do think about signing the dotted line for a 12 or 24-month period – it may save you a lot of time & stress. I’d advise that you do this after the initial build, rather than before as this time will allow you to build a trusting relationship with your partner. 

On the flip side, other consultants may simply charge an hourly/daily rate – but you must look much further than just the cost. Think about the time it may take you to create an element yourself or update your platform & the solution of someone else doing this for you. 

What previous projects is the provider proud of? 

As a common question, this gives you an idea of other projects they have worked on. Ask them to provide detail on why the project was complex, and why they’re proud of it. After all, an aesthetically pleasing design is nothing compared to a great working backend. 

You could even speak to these clients as reference points should you wish.

Where is their team based?

Being aware of different team members’ whereabouts is always a good thing to be aware of, as working with a provider who has an entirely off-shore development team can come with a risk. Approach the subjects of which proportion of the team does this apply, how is the team managed and what processes do they have in place to prevent issues?  

I find that the best agencies have a lot of remote team members, but to build confidence, it’s something to be aware of. 

Thanks for reading, and if you have any additional questions you often get asked please let me know. 

Myk Baxter, eCommerce Consultant