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What to Watch For When Choosing a Digital Product Agency

Alexa Alfonso
September 25, 2020

Without guidelines in place to field your options, choosing a digital product agency can be a daunting and confusing task. We’ve broken down some green, yellow, and red flags to help you pinpoint the truly spectacular agencies and steer clear of the agencies that might not have your best interests at heart.

Green flags to be aware of when choosing a digital product agency

If you notice any of these qualities listed below, you’re likely on the right track toward choosing an agency that’s reliable, honest, and efficient.

They ask lots of questions

When an agency is asking questions, it shows that they are more interested in having a clear understanding than appearing all-knowing. We like to refer to this as they want to get it right, not be right.

They’re as transparent as possible

Agencies that are forthcoming and honest will help you set accurate goals and qualify them as a potential partner. They’re qualifying you just as you’re qualifying them, and a quality agency will refer you on to a different alternative if they think it’s a better fit.

They retain long-term clients

Agencies with longer client engagements have proven that they have the skills, processes, and follow-through to be worth the investment. If others trust them to continue bringing value, maybe you can too.

They retain long-term employees

Since you’ll be working directly with an agency’s team, you want to make sure they’re happy in their current position. Retention is a good indicator of employee fulfillment. Some turnover is normal, but if they can retain in this industry, they are doing something right.

They share information and expertise online or at events

Another great credibility source is their thought leadership. Check their website and social channels to see what kind of content they share openly. We’ve found if they are sharing, they are learning, which means they will learn how to solve your needs quickly.

They can clearly explain what they are great at and not great at

This ties back in with transparency. An agency that knows its strengths and weaknesses knows where there may be hurdles in an engagement.

They mention people’s names, not just roles

To better connect with the people you’ll be working alongside, it’s nice to put a name with the role. If nothing else, this should be included in the agency’s proposal for your team.

They are honest about failures

Failure is one of the best ways to learn. An agency should be able to show that they’ve learned from their failures and have enough successes to balance things out.

They are willing to share names of existing or previous clients for referral conversations

If their previous engagements were positive, they should have no issues providing this information. There may be some confidential information included in this, especially if all of their case studies aren’t publicly available, but ask for proof of their value. Chances are, an agency will be happy to share.

They are busy with existing clients

If an agency makes mention of clients they’re working with currently, this is a sign that other companies have engaged with them. Social proof can go a long way in establishing trust.


Red flags to keep an eye on when choosing a digital product agency

While some solid agencies might have one or two of these red flag qualities, you really want to watch out for the ones that tick off many of these boxes.

They promise that they can do anything and everything

Agencies that are unrealistic about their shortcomings will only disappoint you later on down the road. You want to be sure the agency is drilling down deep into specific things rather than spreading themselves thin over too many things. No one likes a partner that over-commits and under-delivers.

They offer cheap hourly rates

While this might look great on paper, there are normally trade-offs with any product team that’s ‘cheap’. This might indicate that they’re outsourcing work overseas or skimping on some aspect of the building process (like testing). Outsourcing can work, but you usually get what you pay for.

They offer to throw a lot of people at the project

More people doesn’t always equal a better product. We believe product teams should be between 4 and 10, because communication breaks down as teams grow larger. It often becomes more difficult, costly and inconvenient to get everyone on the same page the bigger the group is.

They say yes to every idea you have

A ‘yes’ team can be even more dangerous than a ‘no’ team. You want an agency that’s going to feel confident to ask hard questions and challenge you to make a great product.

You don’t get to meet at least one member of the team you’d work with during the sales process

It’s important to meet the people you’ll be working with before you sign anything. You’re paying for the team, not the salesperson you’ve been interacting with thus far.

They don’t have a process they can articulate to you clearly

If an agency can’t explain their process, how can you trust them? Process alignment will help set expectations and prepare your team for what to expect. There is a lot of value to an agency that will adapt to your needs, but they should have invested in training their people to bring value fast through a consistent workflow.

Yellow flags to watch out for when choosing a digital product agency

While the red and green flags listed above are pretty self-explanatory, we wanted to dive deeper into each of the yellow flags below to explain why these facets straddle the line.

They ask for a specifications document

You may have a specification document for your product, and that’s completely fine. However, if you don’t and the agency is quick to ask for one, it could mean they rely too heavily on the punch list of what a product ought to do rather than a proven process for building digital products that solves the real problem at hand. Remember: you will always be the expert in the industry, but a digital product agency will bring their own expertise to the table.

They don’t have a ton of case studies

Every agency has to start somewhere, but you may not want to be their guinea pig if your product has high stakes. Some agencies might have case studies that they can’t share publicly on their site due to NDAs, so reach out to see if there are any confidential case studies they can share with you privately.

It’s possible the agency just doesn’t have the resources to invest in case study creation, so work with them to help establish that level of confidence you need to move forward. Keep in mind: there’s no golden rule for the number of case studies they should have.

They talk about themselves a lot

Humble confidence is a key quality to look for when choosing a digital product agency. This means an agency has the confidence to execute on their ideas and provide recommendations plus the humility to acknowledge areas where they still have room to grow.

If an agency is more interested in talking about their own expertise rather than how they can help guide you to be the hero of your story, that’s a clear yellow flag. You want to be sure that they’ll be open to learning more about the nuances of your situation AND eager to work alongside a team that they can learn a lot from.

They’ve never worked in your industry

It’s understandable to have trepidation if an agency hasn’t worked in your industry – or a parallel industry – before. Though it isn’t entirely necessary, it’s helpful to know that the agency will be able to speak your language and understand the pain points of your end user. For government and health engagements, specifically, it can be a huge time commitment on the client’s part to get the product team up-to-speed on requirements specific to their industry. If you identify an agency that has a willingness to learn and you’re okay with doing some teaching along the way, these engagements can still be successful.

They use a ton of jargon

More of a nuisance than anything, it can be difficult to engage with an agency that uses lingo you’re unfamiliar with frequently. If it seems like they’re using big words to compensate for a lack of true understanding, that might be a yellow flag. Working with an agency to establish familiar terms that you can be used between the teams can help optimize communication and ensure alignment.

Note: The more you field different agencies, the easier it will be to keep an ear out for some of these phrases.

They bill on the reported hour

This is not a total deal breaker. Many great agencies prefer to work on the reported billable hour. The problem is that this incentivizes the wrong outcome. It puts the value of the agency spending more hours to get things done because they’ll make more money. There is no incentive to find efficiencies. The ideal is a balance between time and material and outcomes. 

You’ve got your flags. Now choose your agency. 

Choosing a digital product agency can take weeks (if not months) of research, meetings, and paperwork, but the effort you put in will pay off in the long run. Use this flag system to help prioritize the agencies that will empower your team, take the time to understand your pain points, and proceed with transparency. Thoroughly qualifying your options will help your buyer group and stakeholders select the agency that will enable you to meet your outcomes. 


Reach out to us via hello@crema.us if we can be of any help. 


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