There is a dilemma in the commerce world that has caused the process in which most agencies build websites to be broken.  It’s cause many retailers to take their website builds in-house.  We’ve studied the problem and are evolving the way projects are managed to address the process, making it more fluid and allowing more in project dynamic change when building a new website.  Lets start by stating the problem.

The Problem

The problem is that in most cases the customer (retailer) and the agency (solutions partner or “integrator”) have conflicting objectives and never have true philosophical alignment.  Follow me here while I develop this point.  You, the retailer want to build your new site with all the functionality that you need to support your business model in the least amount of money as possible.  You do this because you have a limited budget and want to ensure you have finances available to support marketing and omnichannel initiatives such as ERP or Order Management integrations.  The solutions partner or commerce agency has a different goal. They want to make as much money as possible, exposing themselves to the least risk possible and deal with the least amount of project change as possible.  In this case 1 + 1 does not equal 2.  So how do we align the interests of both parties to ensure a retailer can outsource their site build, achieve quality and revenue growth on a time line, AND the agency can make money as well?  This is the question that gets at the root of our problem.  We have an answer.

The Solution

The solution is about adopting a new philosophy to project management.  From an agency side there are several business units within an agency that typically function differently both from a financial billing perspective and regarding how work is actually done.  You have your project build side, which in many cases operates on a fixed cost project relationship with a defined scope of work.  This is a rigid approach to managing a client relationship that, truth be told leads to conflict instead of partnership.

Then you have your maintenance side, which is a time and material billing approach for post site launch support and enhancements.  This is sometimes a different team all-together that has knowledge transfer issues and delivers a disjointed client experience.

Then some agencies have a marketing team, which is disjointed from the technology side and has major inefficiencies in driving revenue.  They focus more on the quality of a deliverable than results.  So how do you architect and build a team that is solely focused on value and revenue instead of deliverables and billings.  It starts by building the best process for creating software, which in our opinion is a lean and agile process.  This doesn’t mean no budgets and no timelines and no site roadmap, but it does mean building in flexibility into a project process to allow and encourage change along the way.  Here are some insights into our approach.

The Right Tools

Communication and collaboration foster the right energy, collaboration and team work required to produce the best results.  We leverage Basecamp as our project communication tool. Notice we did not say project management tool, because it’s not a project management tool.  It’s not a project planning tool, it’s not a tracking tool, it is a project communication tool to capture all project conversations, files and tasks in one place with the goal to cultivate a conversation that leads to an agreed outcome.

Communication is External, Planning is Internal

We do not want out clients to get lost in our planning of resources and scope creep.  We want our clients to focus on collaboration and driving the creative process.  We have a status meeting once per week which is for 1 reason and 1 reason only.  To have the business conversations around how we’re tracking on time, how we’re tracking on scope and how we’re tracking on budget.  Included in this meeting is us outlining any corrective measures to get back on track or discussing any major risks on the project.  Our collaboration and other communication happens during the week.  Why would we want to wait until a prescheduled meeting to show a design comp that is done?  We don’t, we want to jump on the phone the day its done and begin going through an iteration process to lead to a quality result.  All of our project planning, which includes GANTT charts, scope docs, hours allocation and financials are internal as we don’t want the details to slow down the progress of the project.

Change is Expected

We assume roughly 30% change to any project.  Even the best project managers miss details when trying to scope out a complex software project.  We assume and allow for change and we work with clients to make sure the changes align to our original agreed upon goals.  If they do not, that means the project goals have changed, which is when we re-engage everyone to collaborate and adjust our plans based on the new material changes in our contract.  But the ebbs and flows of a few features here and a few features there are a more of a waste of time to argue over than to just build.  In our project process we run on sprints, which outline the next core piece of functionality that needs to be completed and we agree on what the deliverable should be.  This process applies to changes as well and works easily.  So you want to add a rewards program mid project?  Okay, lets document the business requirements, agree on what the functionality should do and won’t do and then build it.  It doesn’t need to turn into the long contract, the scope of work says this, or the contract says that conversation.  Change needs to be expected and embraced.  It also needs to have a healthy amount of challenge to make sure its necessary.

Financial Approach

We bill a fixed cost for the things we can control and time and material for things we cannot.  It works out quite well because our hourly rates are affordable.  They are affordable because we hold ourselves to the standard of providing a return on investment for our clients.  I know this sounds like common sense, but if we bill a company more for our services than they see in a return on investment they will not be a client longterm.  So we typically build the minimum viable product commerce site for a fixed cost, then build a feature roadmap to determine what features are added next.  If a retailer is already established we understand their MVP may be more complex than a startup, that’s great.  We can build and accomodate that.  Our goal is to truly align as partners to our clients.  We want to be their strategy, technology and marketing partner.  We also track the financial impacts to the business that each new feature is driving to the business.

Hopefully this approach makes sense.  We have a lot of experience that we’ve collectively put together to create an atmosphere of project success.  We pay close attention to detail to foster that culture and grow your business.

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