How to choose a Digital Agency – 4 questions you should ask

Choosing the right partner to work with you on your next big digital project can be a daunting task. There are a plethora of web companies out there all claiming to offer the same high level of service and quoting similarly ecstatic clients.

So how do you choose between them? What criteria can you use to cut through the bull and determine which agency will be the right partner to deliver on your project?

Based on our years of experience we’ve compiled what we believe to be the top 4 questions you should ask to help select your ideal digital agency. We’ll be covering:

  1. Hiring specialists
  2. In-house vs out-sourced teams
  3. Processes (or the lack of!)
  4. Support

So if you’re ready to learn how to choose a digital agency, let’s get going.

Are you a specialist?

When hiring a digital agency this is one of the most important questions you can ask.

The team working on your project will – obviously – have a huge impact on the quality of the website which is delivered. That’s why you should always opt for a specialist digital agency.

Specialists are important to us in life because they focus on a single discipline and thus they can offer the best possible set of skills in that area. For example, ask yourself would you be comfortable with a car mechanic working on the undercarriage of your next EasyJet (other airlines are available) flight? I think not!

It’s the same in the web world. You should ensure that the agency you’re engaging focuses entirely on web over and above other related disciplines (eg: print). There are many companies out there purporting to be “web designers” when in actual fact their experience lies primarily in other media. Whilst there are undoubtedly some parallel skills, there is no substitute for the specialist knowledge that a skilled digital expert can provide.

Specialist Staff

It’s also prudent to ask whether the agency employs staff who are specialists within their related disciplines. At Burfield we have experts in creative design, front and backend development, and SEO. Each member of the team is encouraged to focus on their specialism whilst maintaining a broader understanding of the entire web spectrum. This ensures our clients receive only the highest quality work.

Ensure that your agency is providing you with the expertise you should demand.

Do you have an in-house team or do you outsource?

The debate regarding the benefits of out-sourcing vs in-house teams is always fierce. Whatever your opinion however, it’s important to know in advance whether the agency you are employing out-source their work.

Speaking from our own experiences, we feel that the advantages of an in-house team greatly outweigh those of outsourcing.

A confession: Burfield used to outsource it’s development work. That’s certainly not the case now (we have a team of expert in-house developers) but at the time it represented the best solution for both us and our clients. As we’ve grown however, we’ve realised that we need an in-house team in order to provide the best possible service to our clients.

Some arguments in favour of in-house teams include:

  • Better communication – there is no substitute for direct contact with the individuals who are working on your project. Faceless communication via a non-technical manager often leads to a game of Chinese Whispers which leads to crucial elements being lost in translation. Direct communication is key.
  • Team members who are invested in your project – a team of individuals employed by a company have a vested interest in doing the best possible work. After all they will be the one’s maintaining the project in the long term and they have a vested interest in making their agency look as good as possible.
  • Cultural context – a controversial topic in it’s own right, but some might argue that individuals who live and work within the same culture as your business will make more informed decisions regarding your project than those who come with different contexts.
  • Consistency – an in-house team means that the same individuals will see your project through from start to finish. Being involved from day one through to launch should ensure that your project is consistent and properly executed to the agreed specification.
  • Better reliability and scheduling – freelancers have their own interests to consider. They have other clients and other responsibilities which might mean they are not available to focus on your project. This can lead to difficulties surrounding timely delivery which can be avoided via the use of in-house teams.

Obviously these arguments represent our own subjective opinions but at Burfield we’ve been able to directly correlate an increase in our quality and delivery with the switch to in-house teams.

Do you have processes?

The nature of the web means that many digital agencies tend to grow organically, starting out with 1 or 2 employees and gradually taking on more and more staff in response to increased demand for their services. In a small team, lack of process can be offset by good communication and – all too often – by pulling late nights at the office(!).

As teams grow however, things can rapidly get out of hand. Beware of agency owners who have grow their businesses without implementing the processes required to run them in an efficient manner. It will lead to problems as your project progresses.

As with any modern business since the industrial revolution, a clear set of business processes is a must for any successful digital agency. At Burfield we have a set of clearly defined and robust processes which we follow to deliver every project on time and on budget to the satisfaction of our clients. We love process because we know from experience what happens when projects are left to run in an ad hoc manner.

It’s hard to believe now, but in the past Burfield were lacking any clear process. Projects would run over budget and deadlines were missed. That’s now all in the past and Burfield are now a fully processes driven agency. Unfortunately however there are still far too many companies out there who run their businesses without the procedures necessary to ensure they are able to deliver on their promises.

Adopting a driven methodology has made Burfield a thoroughly professional agency with a portfolio of happy clients who appreciate the clear guidance we offer at every stage of their project. To avoid your project going astray, you should ensure that your digital provider can produce evidence of their processes and clearly explain how these will lead to a successful outcome for your project. If they can’t, you should think carefully before engaging them.

Do you provide support for hosting and web maintenance?

A website is like a new car. When it leaves the showroom it is (hopefully) running perfectly. However it will still require a regularly service in order to keep it in tip-top order and to avoid those dreaded unexpected breakdowns.

Unfortunately, all too often questions regarding ongoing maintenance are not addressed until the end of the project at which point you are already heavily invested with you chosen digital supplier.

Questions to ask regarding “support”

Before engaging an agency you should ask two important questions regarding the ongoing stability of your website:

  1. Do you provide website maintenance?
  2. Do you provide web hosting support ?

Website maintenance vs hosting support – what’s the different?

This is a very common question. Indeed the line between what constitutes maintenance of a website and what is more server related is extremely blurry. However it could be summarised as follows:

Website maintenance involves updates to code written specifically for your website and any 3rd party software (eg: Content Management Systems) which are used to power it. It may also include bug fixes (if outside of warranty) and minor feature requests. These updates are made in a planned and scheduled manner in order to ensure the smooth running of the website.

Hosting support is typically centred heavily on server infrastructure. Typically this work does not require updates to website code but rather centres on managing server resource to ensure a website is kept online at all times.

Another car analogy…

Our creative director, Jon Bolton, likes to draw an analogy with cars. Cars need tuning and tweaking by mechanics to keep them running optimally but they run on roads which are maintained and supported separately by the highways agency.

What to consider

Without wishing to generalise, 9 times out of 10 when a website goes down it’s down to the hosting support team to get it up and running again.

In the longer term it may require the website maintenance team to work alongside the hosting team to amend the website code to mitigate against the cause of any regular episodes of downtime. However in an emergency it’s the hosting support that counts.

As a result you need to ensure that if your website is business-critical, you have a suitably robust support agreement in place. At Burfield we offer 7/5 or 24/7 service support packages for all our hosting.

What to ask

Be sure to ask your digital agency whether they provide a solution for ongoing maintenance of your website. Study the terms of this agreement and ask any questions upfront before committing.

If your agency are not hosting your website then it’s important to check whether their website support agreement covers hosting. If not, it’s worth determining the level of support your host can offer. Your agency should be able to guide you through this process and offer appropriate levels of support to cover you for any eventuality.

And one more thing…

Ultimately, no matter how thorough you are, the questions above are only one small part of choosing a digital agency. We would always recommend choosing a specialist agency with an in-house team who follow clear processes and can provide appropriate levels of support. Nonetheless, despite all this, sometimes it will just  boil down to relationships.

During the selection process you should find  yourself asking, “can I really work with the people in this agency?”.

If the answer to that question is no, then you should think long and hard before engaging that supplier as your digital partner. After all, you will need to work with that team for the foreseeable future. And that’s why…

You should speak to Burfield now

If you would like to learn more about engaging Burfield for your next digital project you should get in touch now. We’ll be more than happy to speak with you and guide you towards the launch of your next successful website.

Thanks to Don Moyer for the illustration.

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