Like any relationship, collaborating with a design and development agency takes finesse and honesty. For business owners, good decisions about managing that relationship can make the difference between a so-so website and one that takes a company to the next level.
Choosing an agency
A great relationship begins with choosing the right partner, and open communication is key to helping the business and the agency determine if the partnership will be a good fit.
Rob Bynder, principal at Los Angeles-based Bynder Group, said gathering information before signing the contract is key. "The client should ask about core services, and understand what is available," Bynder said. Business owners should ask how the agency prefers to communicate, when and from whom the business can expect status reports, and what files and products will be delivered.
Business owners should also watch out for red flags. If a Web design agency does not have an established online presence, overpromises on project requirements, or cannot provide credible reviews and testimonials, it could be a sign that this agency is not the best to take on your company's project. Excessive outsourcing, management changes or underbidding the project could also be signs of an agency in trouble.
Size and age may not be good predictors for success, however. A small agency staffed with experienced designers and developers may outperform larger agencies. "Clients should look for stable, experienced agencies. Agencies today can be big or small and still provide the same service and quality," Bynder said.
Honesty is another key to the selection process. Noah Rothschild, account director at Chicago-based Doejo, said sharing as much information as possible will help the agency deliver a thorough proposal. "Be as transparent as possible about your budget and goals. Start with a budget, and work backwards from there to see what you and the agency can accomplish together," Rothschild said.
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Once they have discussed the budget and deliverables, companies have to decide whether an agency's culture is a good match for the business. Jeff Palopoli, account director at Boston Interactive, suggests that business owners ask to meet the core team that will service their account. "It doesn't always work out that clients meet with the actual people who will work on the site, but it's good when possible to meet the potential personalities and see if they match up with how you do business," Palopoli said.
And, as in any relationship, companies should question how the match will work out in both the good times and the bad. "Ask how the agency has handled projects going over time or over scope in the past. Get a clear procedure for billing and scope increase," Bynder said.
During the project
Once your business has selected an agency, the project's progress will depend significantly on how successfully your business communicates with the agency's design and development team.
Agencies agree that having a single point of contact at your company helps them produce their best work. "Too many cooks in kitchen — too much back and forth — doesn't make for a successful engagement. Instead, decide upon a single person to manage all communication with the agency," Palopoli said.
Businesses should also be diligent about giving the agency good information about goals, products and customers. Palopoli describes a client who came to Boston Interactive with a thick folder of analytics, stakeholder interviews and customer profiles. "That was great," Palopoli said. "But if you don't have that, we love to talk with key stakeholders at the organization to get insight into their business and products. If we can have access to actual customers, we can get real insight into how users interact with the site."
Agencies are also eager to get their clients' input about design preferences. "We always ask for creative guidance, not because we want them to design it for us, but because we want to know their aesthetic," Rothschild said. "It's also helpful to have negative feedback. 'Steer clear of this. We don't like this work,' is good feedback."
Deciding how much and what input to give is a careful balancing act, however. Because design surrounds everyone, most business owners have strong opinions about aesthetics, even though they may not be as informed as their designers about the state of the industry. Instead of hoping to micromanage a project, your business should hire an agency whose prior work demonstrates a thorough understanding of your preferences. "The best agency-client relationships are those that embody trust, respect and common geniality. It's easier to do great work for clients that trust an agency to do the work they are expert in," Bynder said.
Finally, when in doubt, make a phone call. Rothschild said agencies want to hear from their clients, and a quick phone check-in can save headaches later on. "Be mindful not to abuse the phone, but don't be afraid to pick it up. In email, things can get lost in translation," Rothschild says.
After the site launch
The Internet isn't stagnant, and so your new website shouldn't stay the same, either. Once the site has launched, the client-agency relationship enters a new phase that is critical to the success of your site.
If the site will use a content management system (CMS), ensure that the agency has provided your company with adequate training to take advantage of all of this system's features. Then, make a list of what you do and do not like about how the site functions, for discussion at a post-launch meeting. Incremental improvements can provide your customers with a better experience for minimal cost.
Follow-up meetings will also help your agency optimize the site's existing features. "When we are helping a client reach key goals, we develop the site based on things we can track on the back end," Palopoli said. "We track these after launch to see if we did our job right and if the site is successful, and to determine what we can change or tweak," Palopoli said.
Continuing to engage with your agency can also lead to opportunities for promotion. "A lot of times, Web teams only hear about things that need to be changed. Keep us updated about how things are going. A success story can lead to a feature on the agency's blog," Rothschild said.
Ongoing communication can also give your company an edge in adopting new technologies. "Part of my job is making sure I understand our clients, so I try to stay educated about their industries and help them stay on top of trends," Palopoli said.
Ultimately, like any collaboration, your agency relationship is about trust and communication. "The best work, and results, happen when there are clear goals, distinct deliverables, confidence in our expertise and consistent communication. Our goal is to help our client shine and succeed in every way possible, and we can do that very well when empowered by a collaborative, respectful environment," Bynder says.
Originally published on Business News Daily.