Questions to Ask When Evaluating an Agency Partner

Twenty Questions Panel

Here at Savas Labs, our vision has always been to be a hub where ambitious, passionate people come together to craft digital tools to maximize their positive impact. We’ve built off of this practice through the introduction of our webinar series: Client-Side Chats. One client we had the privilege of partnering with for our Client-Side chat series was the Associate Dean of the University of North Carolina’s School of Government - Maurice Ferrell. During our discussion with Ferrell, we asked about his experience and the interview process for selecting the right agency to hire. With hundreds of agencies to choose from, finding one that truly meets your needs can be time-consuming and intimidating. This article aims to share the questions Ferrell asked during his interview process and the red flags he learned to look out for to help you with your own agency search.

But First, What are Client-Side Chats?

Client-Side Chats Promo Image

Client-Side Chats provide a platform to showcase how we’ve collaborated with our client partners while sharing our industry knowledge and expertise to help others:

  • Learn about new technologies and tactics to support their organizations
  • Understand the process and pitfalls of implementing them 
  • Build a network of like-minded professionals looking to make an impact using technology. 

The clients we ask to participate in our Client-Side chats are selected based on several factors, including project requirements, implementation of technical solutions, lessons learned, and more. 

Our Work with the University of North Carolina’s School of Government

Ferrell reached out to us about his team’s struggle to meet the needs of their customers. Each year the school’s faculty members publish approximately 50 books, manuals, reports, articles, bulletins, and other print and online content related to state and local government. However, their digital library was hidden behind a cumbersome website, and the publications themselves were Microsoft Word Documents, which is not a format conducive to those who need easy access to information on the go. We worked alongside Ferrell and his team to build a book importer tool that converts published Word Documents into responsive HTML. Through this tool's implementation, the University can now release digital versions of its publications faster than print copies. 

The unique nature of the tool, combined with Ferrell’s expertise, inspired our webinar - Client-Side Chats: Leveraging Custom Applications to Drive Organizational Growth. During the webinar, our team of experts sat alongside Ferrell to discuss the nature of the book importer tool and how it was able to drive growth for the University. One thing that Ferrell made note of was - investing in the right tool involves finding the right team to build it. Ferrell found that by asking these specific questions, you can easily sift through agencies to find the right one for you. 

“Does the potential partner have the staff and expertise to handle the request?” 

In short, does this potential agency have the expertise in-house? The purpose behind this question is to determine whether this agency can complete the work themselves or if they will have to subcontract someone to help. During the webinar, Ferrell pointed out that a huge red flag for him was hearing the phrase - “we're probably going to need to staff up to do this work.” From Maurice’s perspective, if an agency needs to “staff up,” they most likely lack the experience and expertise to complete the project. Additionally, the tech industry is highly competitive, making it difficult to find and hire contract employees. 

If you want your project to stay within a set timeline and budget, we encourage you to find an agency that already has the staff in-house. 

“What does the potential partner’s project management team and process look like?” 

Maurice found that having a strong project manager partner and process in place is crucial for a successful project. Project managers are accountable for determining the project's scope and providing leadership and direction to the team. They are also the main point of contact between you and the agency’s execution team, so they must be able to effectively communicate your needs to the team and set up a project plan to reflect those needs.

Understanding an agency’s project management process is a sure-fire way to verify whether or not their team has the experience you need to guarantee a successful project outcome. Here is an example of what a project management process can look like:

Custom application development process
  • Project Initiation - The process starts with taking the project idea and understanding if it’s feasible or not. The project manager will work with you to understand the project requirements and constraints, document any risks, and identify the involvement of key stakeholders.
  • Project Planning - During this phase, the project manager will create the scope, set goals, and establish the roles and responsibilities of the team working on the project. The project manager will also use the planning period to set communication standards between your stakeholders and the project team and develop a plan to manage any risks established in the project initiation stage.  
  • Project Execution - After a project plan is set in stone, the project manager will manage project resources and address any issues that arise. 
  • Project Monitoring and Controlling - The project manager will continue monitoring progress and ensuring the team adheres to the set deadlines throughout the development process.
  • Project Closing - As the project comes to a close, the project manager will ensure that quality assurance testing has taken place before handing over the deliverables to you for your approval. 

All in all, Maurice found that having an expert project manager can eliminate wasteful activities and ensure a successful project through careful planning and foresight.

“What does the potential partner’s discovery process look like? How do they get their team up to speed on your problem and goals for this project?”

For context, a discovery phase is a planning stage in which your potential partner gathers information about your business processes and the proposed project. From there, your partner will put together an internal team to build a timeline, budget, and a list of the technical requirements. The overall goal of a discovery phase is to provide you the opportunity to collaborate with your potential partner to make data-driven decisions and reduce any risks connected to the product’s development.

Discovery phase components

According to Ferrell, finding a potential partner that invests their time to understand your business processes and can identify ways in which they feel they can add value is better in the long run. Someone who rushes to provide an automatic solution is another red flag indicator that could jeopardize your project’s success. 

The last thing you want to do is work with someone who overpromises and under-delivers or costs you valuable resources. 

“How are collaboration and communication baked into your project execution process?”

Lastly, during the webinar, Ferrell heavily stressed the importance of finding a partner that can provide a solution that operates within your current business processes. A custom-developed tool should never disrupt your business flow but rather enhance what you’re already doing. In that same vein, you shouldn’t be expected to change your business processes to meet your partner's capabilities.    

Additionally, your potential partner should collaborate with you to develop a custom solution and be able to communicate their expertise and project capabilities. For example, if a partner comes to you with a solution that exceeds your budget, they should be able to clearly explain why it’s going to cost more and what additional options are available to you.

At Savas Labs, our projects are successful because of the relationships and trust we build with our clients. Finding a digital partner doesn’t have to be a tedious process; it’s simply a matter of asking the right questions.

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