April 27, 2020 By Scott S - Design Director,

I’ve worked with brands doing eCommerce for over a decade, much of that time has been at Digital Operative, a full service e-commerce / creative agency in San Diego. Some clients approach us with an incredible product, but no idea how to sell it. Others come to us due to bad experiences with previous agencies. Many of our prospective clients understand the process of choosing a new eCommerce agency and are deeply engaged in the interviewing process, but others admit to me they feel like they’re feeling their way through the dark. As the Design Director at DO, I've participated in my fair share of agency pitches over the years. I'd like to share my perspective on what you should look for when choosing an ecommerce agency for your brand.

Below is a list of factors to consider when choosing the right eCommerce agency for your brand and setting yourself up for the best possible experience and outcome.

This is a long term relationship, take your time.

This is truly a relationship you are entering into. You are going to be spending a great deal of time with these people as well as a great deal of energy, money and of course, risk. What you get out of the process should be commensurate with the amount of time, energy, and heart you’re about to put into it.

The uncomfortable truth is that there is always going to be risk when choosing an ecommerce agency. But, what doesn’t come with risk? Is everything going to be perfectly smooth? Probably not. Will everything come out successfully on the other end? If you put the work into vetting the best-fit agency, more times than not the answer will be yes.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Uncomfortable Questions.

Let’s be real: You would never start a first date by sharing that you rarely wake up before noon, returned a puppy you adopted on a whim, and haven’t paid your taxes in years! Agencies don’t do that either. What you see online is their best work. After a nice getting-to-know-you phone call, you can start getting into the more difficult questions.

When you first talk to an agency, they’ll surely share some of their big “wins”; make sure those “wins” apply to you. Ask about projects they did for similar brands, similarly sized companies, or with similar budgetary constraints.

You’ll also want to hear about their failures, and why those projects failed. If they’re smart, they’ll tell you about reasonably successful projects that just “didn’t live up to their full potential.” That’s fine, you should expect this and don’t fault them for it. Instead, ask them what factors contributed to the failure and listen carefully for both what they say and how they say it.

If you can find out the names of companies they’ve worked with in the past, as well as companies they currently work with, give those companies a call for a reference.

Finally, get into the real nitty-gritty. Ask them about the last time they were fired by a client and what happened. Also ask them about the last time they fired a client and why. Ideally, this discussion, while not always comfortable to begin with, will lead to a level of honesty and mutual understanding that lets you both evaluate whether the fit is right.

Understand How the Ecommerce Agency Operates.

“Full Service Agency” has a bit of a loose definition and you should know what it means to the agency you choose to work with. Ask your prospective agencies how they’re structured: What portion of the work is freelanced? What portion is done by in-house employees? What is their relationship with their freelancers? Do they have a history with these freelancers? Or are they brand new to this project?

It’s not bad to freelance or outsource certain types of work; in fact, some projects will be better for it, either by amping up the creative potential or realizing the client cost-savings.

We are a full-service ecommerce agency that freelances certain roles for certain projects, primarily photography, videography and 3D modeling. We’ve made this choice because we find that these roles actually suit themselves better to contract work. Many times these freelancers actually prefer to freelance for a variety of creative reasons. That said, we don’t take on just anyone and our freelancers are professionals we’ve built relationships with over many projects and many years.

How do you find out your agency’s relationship with their creative and business staff? Ask them. Are they apologetic about “outsourcing” or do they provide you a good business reason for mixing freelance and in-house staff?

In all matters (not just staffing), listen both for what your prospective agency says and how they say it. I have spoken with clients who have complained about prior agencies refusing to explain a process, calling it “Proprietary” or even better, their “Secret Sauce”. I don’t know about you, but most “Secret Sauces” I’ve tried are usually just ketchup, mayonnaise, and pickle relish. Not much of a secret.

Uncover Intentions: Goldilocks, the Wolf and the Chameleon

The client’s interest and the agency’s interest are (or should be) the same: provide the best experience for the brand’s consumer. That means that while I may talk to you every day and while we may be swapping stories about our dogs or our kids, you are not number one -- your consumer is.

This is the kind of agency approach you want to tease out in your prospective interviews. Is the agency ready to say “yes” to every idea you have without investigating further? Or do they ask smart and probing questions about your consumer? Is everything an upsell with them? Or do they advise you intelligently about budget and the best financial moves for your desired ROI?

In terms of agreeability, look for the “Goldilocks Zone” -- just enough but not too much.

If you are talking to a prospective agency who doesn’t make the time or effort to include you in their process, or if they come off as having a “just sit back and let the professionals handle this” mentality... run. They are wolves and they are more interested in their goals than yours.

Conversely, if you are talking to an agency and you seem to completely align on every aspect of everything about anything… run even faster. They are chameleons. They take whatever shape they need to massage your ego and get the contract, not to do the best work possible.

Pro Tip: “You want to make sure there’s a good give and take exchange to your relationship with your agency. You should challenge each other and provide criticism towards the goal of being productive.”

Understanding that the agency and the client are actually after the same thing -- the best experience for the brand’s consumer -- is crucial because it paves the way for comfortable disagreement. And disagreement, from my point of view, can be the best creative fuel: an opportunity to learn from different points of view and make the work even better for the end user.

Communicate Throughout the Process; Provide Constructive Closure

If you're having reservations about an agency’s process, let them know. Giving an agency the opportunity to address uncertainties can uncover bigger issues that help everyone agree not to move forward, or it can be the first in many constructive conversations that improve your relationship and your work together. It’s win-win.

If an agency is a true candidate, keep them updated on your selection process. And if you’ve decided they aren’t the right fit, let them know as soon as possible. For the sake of all the human beings involved, don’t string the process out longer than you need to.

There is nothing worse than receiving a white-labeled email: “Dear (AgencyName), we regret to inform you that although we appreciate your time and effort, but we have chosen to move forward with another agency.” It’s the professional equivalent of “It’s not you, it’s me,” and the truth of the matter is, it might be part you, but obviously it is also part me. Do the agencies a solid and explain to them what you really appreciated about their efforts, what you thought was lacking, and (if you would be so kind) what the agency they chose did to succeed in winning your business.

Go with your gut… but mostly your brain.
I’ve been preaching a lot about “developing a relationship” with your prospective agency, and it’s true: you really want to work with people you trust and with whom you have a good rapport.

But making a decision based solely on rapport is a fool’s errand. There will be people on your team who will want to work with a certain agency simply because they really like the person they have been talking to. Liking your agency contacts is a good place to start, but it can’t end there.

Both objective and subjective feelings matter, and it can be helpful to start with the subjective. Let’s split it with the 80/20 rule. 80% should be subjective. 20% of the decision should be subjective. Even though it’s only 20%, it’s a deal breaking 20%.

  • The Subjective side goes like this:
    • Do we like working with the people at the agency?
    • What was everyone’s initial reaction to the agency?
    • Do we believe everything they promised?
    • Do they seem excited about our project?

So you have a list of agencies who passed the subjective test. Now’s the time to look at the other 80%. This comes in the form of their work, their execution, their successes and their strengths and weaknesses with an objective and critical eye.

  • The Objective side goes like this:
    • Who is willing to treat you as partner and not a patron?
    • Who really has the experience and insight to help you succeed in your particular industry, within your particular consumer base?
    • Who has really heard your needs, helped you articulate them even better, and then proposed solutions that you see them able to execute on?
    • Who has hit the timelines they promised during the agency search process?

Will there always be risk when choosing an eCommerce agency? Yes. Can you find the right agency partner for your brand’s needs? Absolutely. As long as you choose an agency who is an advocate for the customer, knows no other way than to be transparent and is obviously qualified to meet your objectives; you are heading in the right direction.

Is there risk in choosing an eCommerce agency? Yes.

Can you find the right agency partner? Absolutely.

If you follow the process we discussed above, then it is possible.

  1. Do your research on the agencies' capabilities
  2. Ask the tough questions
  3. Listen to how they respond to disagreements and how decisions will get made
  4. Understand the agencies operations & people
  5. Choose an agency based mostly on objective facts, but also a healthy amount of subjective feelings

If anyone has any other tips or experience that would lead to a differing opinion, please add it to the comments. We’re all in this together and we are all trying to get better.

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