As we discussed last time, choosing the right eCommerce platform to build your business on is an important decision. 

But platform is only part of the puzzle. Selecting the right agency to work with is equally important. 

While there are a range of factors at play - and not every business needs the same thing from their agency - there are definitely common issues you’ll want to cover when making your selection.  

So what are the key questions you should ask when vetting potential agency partners?

Platform focus: “Are you a specialist agency, or a generalist?’

Determining how many platforms an agency carries is a great place to start the vetting process. 

Many agencies work across multiple platforms. But think about it: if you’re building your business on one particular platform, why would you hire an agency that works across many

In nearly every instance, you want the agency with the deepest knowledge, the most expertise, and the greatest focus on the particular platform you're working with. 

The benefits of that specialised focus are myriad, especially when it comes to understanding the platform’s wider ecosystem. An agency solely focused on the Shopify platform will almost certainly have a much deeper understanding of Shopify’s specific ecosystem, capabilities and potential, over an agency that works with Shopify and a few others.

What are your particular business needs? ERP requirements? Inventory management? Accounting? Shipping and logistics? Then you’ll want an agency that can go deep into the platform’s functionality and really understand its nuances, and that can only happen with an agency that hasn’t spread itself too thin. 

Such specialisation also supports better internal agency collaboration. While conceivably, there could be some knowledge-sharing advantages to having developers across multiple platforms, typically, an agency working across a range of different eCommerce platforms will not collaborate as cohesively as one with a particular platform focus. 

And one way or another, you (the client) end up paying for it.  

That’s especially true when dealing with account managers or project managers who are working across multiple platforms. As a client, you want to be able to ask your key contact a quick question and get a quick, accurate answer, not have to wait while they check with five different people from within the organisation. Project managers working across multiple platforms never really acquire deep knowledge of any. (More on that in a minute).

For the record, Pocket Square is a specialist Shopify agency. Our entire team is focused on Shopify and Shopify Plus and it's the only platform we work with. 

We really believe in specialisation because it means our clients get the best value for money. They don’t pay the overheads of staff members running BigCommerce; they don’t pay for staff members learning how to use Adobe Commerce. They only pay for what they get.  

Simply put, if you’re building on the Shopify platform, ask your agency: are you a Shopify specialist? Are you an official Shopify partner? How long have you been one?  

Resources: Internal or external? 

Will the agency be using external freelancers to run, develop, design or build your project? 

Many agencies do. They land work, they hire external resources to manage that influx of work, and then they scale those freelancers back when that work isn't there anymore. 

That can create problems for you, the client.  

Firstly, quality control. The level of knowledge and expertise any particular freelancer has is an unknown entity. And because most freelancers are not completely bedded into the agency system, they will never have the same access to internal agency knowledge - or exhibit the same ownership over the project that in-house staff do.

Likewise, for better or worse, freelancers often march to the beat of their own drum, and that can result in stylistically inconsistent output.

Unfortunately, these issues can affect agencies who leverage in-house offshore teams too, with staff who are not technically freelancers but aren't necessarily in-region either. 

Of course, there are good developers all over the world, but working with a locally-based agency that is actually doing the development work in Manila, Ukraine, or Belarus, comes with its own challenges.

The agencies using offshore resources are dealing with teams in different time zones, conducting briefing sessions during narrow crossover windows, and trusting that the offshore team will complete the work as requested overnight. Of course, the offshore team can't ask questions or get clarification in this scenario (because their locally-based project manager is offline), and all too often that leads to confusion, mistakes, and wasted time. 

It’s also worth mentioning that those offshore staff are almost definitely not being paid anywhere near as much as local staff would be. This is no reflection on their worth as developers - far from it - but is that desirable when you’re paying enterprise-level rates for development? 

In my experience, some agencies have been less than forthcoming about this issue, so my advice is this: even if you’re working with a New Zealand-based agency, establish exactly where that work will actually be done. 

Resource allocation: Access to key team members

This is related to the point above, but it’s worth making again: what access will you have to key resources during the project? If you need to, could you have a sit-down meeting with the key people working on your project? If you needed to speak with the back-end developer,  front-end developer, designer, or project manager, could you? 

This is an important issue, especially for larger organisations that will have their own internal developers eager to engage with agency staff over technical details. 

More broadly, will you have consistency in the staff you deal with over the course of the project? Are those key roles going to stay the same for the whole duration? Or will your project be traded around the company? 

Similarly, how many projects is the agency running concurrently? How many clients are each project manager working with at a time? Do they have the worforce to properly carry out this project on time, or are they just churning out 'rinse-and-repeat' work? 

Fundamentally, it’s a question of the quality of their resource allocation. It’s worth establishing, right at the beginning of the project, how the agency is forecasting the work, and getting as much detail as possible about its strategy for managing its resources. 

Final word

Ensuring that any prospective agency can align with your specific objectives, carry out the work as promised, and provide you with the service and engagement that you require is what will make the project a success. 

Yes, there’s a lot to think about, but addressing these issues upfront will save you time and money - and perhaps heartache - in the long run. 

Making sure those key questions are asked - and that you’re satisfied with the answers - is a sensible first step towards selecting the best agency partner for your project.

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