Once you’ve identified digital product agencies for your short list, you should compile a list of questions that will help determine whether they have the expertise to match the promise. Arming yourself with questions like the ones below will help ensure that you get the most out of those initial conversations with sales.
Rest assured you’ll have plenty of opportunities to clarify specifics before you reach the contract phase, so don’t get too hung up on getting answers to all these questions on the first call. Try not to lead any of these questions. Listen for how they respond and look for anything that would cause you to go deeper and build trust early.
What does a great engagement look like to you?
Make a list of what’s important to you. See how this aligns with how they answer. Is it speed, quality, price, collaboration, proximity? All of these factors will go into you choosing the agency that is right for you. Listen for experience. Do they complain about bad projects or highlight what they like? Do they talk about size, budget, and complexity, or do they focus on culture, collaboration, and outcomes? If they struggle to describe a great engagement, you may want to make sure they’ve had one.
What does your team look like in terms of size and skills?
Listen for how they describe the organization and skill levels of their teams. They’ll likely jump to a list of roles and possibly tech stack, but listen for how they refer to their team as people instead of resources. Dig into their range of experience and feel free to ask about how they help their teams pursue professional development to stay up on best practices and new trends.
What would my team makeup look like?
Listen carefully for some type of creative or design, technology or development, testing or QA, and product management. Some teams will add roles like DevOps, Security, Research, Business Analyst, Strategist, and more. Listen to how they talk about the size of the team. A small, collaborative product team can be extremely nimble and creative, but some agencies will throw out the value of putting lots of people on projects to make it sound like more will get done.
What do you NOT do?
This is a great question! How they answer this will let you in on their confidence around customer needs and how they check those boxes creatively. For example, not all studios will have in-house testing or security, but they may have a partner network or suggest they find another agency to work with. Also, they may note that they don’t work in certain technologies, but hopefully can find other teams to partner with to help you check the box if needed.
Who needs to be involved on our side and yours?
Listen for them to suggest that there should be constant collaboration and access to the team and the tools they use. They may still set point meetings, and primary points of contact to keep information organized, but if they suggest only needing to be involved at key milestones, request more.
How much time should I expect to invest on my end?
It’s important to set expectations early about how often you’ll need to be involved in the engagement. As mentioned above, the agency will likely have a process they follow, but be sure to get a sense of how many hours per month, for example, you should expect to dedicate to them. They should have averages to work off of.
What are your values?
The team should at least know most of the values of the company, but they may also have values that are unspoken and important to them as individuals. The team’s understanding of their values and purpose as an organization will really help you to see how much they’ve bought into the vision of what they do.
Why do other clients choose you?
This may vary between agencies. They might value their flexibility, design chops, development capabilities, cost-saving options, a proven process, proximity, etc. Or they may tout that they are the best and list logos of previous companies. Try to see beyond the sale, and look for the type of people that you’d be working with. To work effectively with a product agency, expect a long-term, trusted partnership. Make sure that people hire them because they trust them.
What makes an engagement successful?
Listen for outcomes. There will be wins and losses when building software. The wins should not be based purely on build and launch, but on the outcomes and impact the solution had to its users. Ideally, a successful engagement is one where the client wants to keep working together because of the value that the team brought.
What causes your projects to fail?
Projects fail. They should have failure stories. Listen carefully for if they shift all the blame to their previous clients. Failed projects or relationships are always a two-way issue. How did they learn from their failures to get better?
Why do people come work for your agency?
As we mentioned in our previous chapters, recruiting and retaining people is hard work. Why people come to work for this company will help shed light on the company’s reputation, and the morale of the team. This posture will impact the quality of their relationship with you.
Can I chat with one of your existing or former clients?
Always follow up on this. Talking to previous clients is the best way to learn why it will go great or be a challenge for you to work with them. Ask some of the same questions from above to see how previous clients respond.
How would we kick things off?
These questions help to determine if they have a shared understanding of their process. They will tweak the process to meet your needs, but they should be able to describe how they will onboard your project, get the team aligned, and start the flywheel of your partnership.
What does your culture look like?
There are lots of ways to describe a culture. Note how they describe each other. How much trust is already built into the team. What do they value? Is it just a cool office and beer in the fridge? Or is it a mindset of creativity, collaboration, and growth?
How will you prioritize work on my project?
This can be a hard question to answer because every technology team in the world struggles with this. They should be able to address that mix of your input, their insights, the user’s feedback, and negotiating things like tech debt, release timelines, and stakeholder needs.
This list is only a starting point for you to build off of, and we encourage you to integrate questions more specific to the objective you’re trying to achieve. These questions will help you determine team compatibility and what sort of value you can expect out of an engagement. They’ll also help you flesh out a pitch that you can use to get your team on board with collaboration. Understanding the way an agency thinks and works is imperative for client/agency relationships to be successful.
Bonus: If you’re talking to an experienced firm, they will likely have their own punch list of questions for you. Be prepared to get into specifics(assuming an NDA has been signed) about the milestones and metrics that matter. Agencies want you to succeed just as much as you want to succeed.