It’s very common for businesses to partner with outside vendors like a digital agency to help them complete a variety of business initiatives. The digital agency becomes an extension of your team so selecting a partner should be treated with the same care as hiring a new employee. Much like making a bad hire, partnering with the wrong agency can cost you time and money.

Before signing on the dotted line, look for the following characteristics in your new potential partner to weed out agencies that might not be a great fit:

1. They are responsive and easy to communicate with

If an agency is slow to return calls and emails during the sales cycle, it probably doesn’t bode well for once you start working together on projects. In addition to being responsive, do they have a good rapport with you? Chemistry is an important aspect of the partnership. Going back to the analogy of hiring a new employee, this is the equivalent of “culture fit.” You might find an agency that specializes in the particular technology or marketing approach that you are looking for, but if you dread meeting with them and conversation is awkward or unpleasant, it’s probably not a good sign.

During the vendor selection process, you are likely dealing with the sales team only so it would be good to find out what you should expect in terms of communication if you were to select them as your agency of record. Some important questions to ask are:

  • Who will be my main point of contact? It’s key to have a single person that everything flows through who is keeping everything organized on your behalf.
  • Will there be a dedicated team? It will save you time by having a dedicated team that gets to know you and your business so you can become a well-oiled machine.
  • What is your SLA? You should find out how quickly you can expect a response when you reach out.
  • Are there regular meetings included in this engagement? You’ll want to make sure there are at least monthly meetings with the full team to discuss progress and results.
  • How are requests tracked? Make sure they are using some type of client portal or ticketing system to keep track of work. For marketing work, find out what types of reporting is included.

2. They are transparent about their process

Asking questions about process is a good way to measure how well the agency is going to be able to meet your needs in the future. You want to make sure that you are partnering with a group of experts in their field. After all, that’s why you are making this investment in the first place. They should be able to speak to exactly how they would plan to run the proposed engagement with you. This would include putting together a team with the right skill sets to meet your needs, a process for gathering requirements or data, a plan for implementation, and a way to test or measure the success of that plan. There should also be lots of check-in points for feedback and communication along the way.

Ask questions about the team and how you will interact with them. Some agencies might partner with other vendors or contractors to fill skill gaps they don’t have internally. This isn’t necessarily a negative but it’s a good thing to know up front because it may influence workflow and communication.

3. They ask intelligent questions about your business and your goals

While it’s probably a safe bet to say that most companies want to increase leads, improve search rank, have a cool-looking site, etc. – the method in which those results are achieved could be drastically different from one business to another. Your digital agency needs to take the time to understand:

  • The history of your business and your value proposition
  • The drivers behind wanting to pursue this engagement
  • Your product and/or services offerings
  • Your target audience
  • The competitive landscape
  • Your sales cycle
  • Your current pain points
  • What does success look like to you

There are probably many more questions as well but the key here is that the agency is taking the time to really understand who you are and what you need. There’s no way that anyone is going to be able to craft a valuable plan to help you solve your business problems or meet your goals if they haven’t done their homework to figure out what that really means.

4. They can back up claims of expertise

Don’t just take their word for it that they are the best – get proof! Proof can come in many forms but any good digital agency should be able to provide you with examples from their portfolio, case studies and/or references from existing clients.

Another way to “test the waters” before making a big investment is to start with a small project, like an SEO audit or a UX audit. This gives the vendor a chance to show you what they’ve got before you commit to a longer term contract. You’ll be able to see if they can make valuable recommendations and get a feel for the team.

5. They aren’t a team of “Yes Men”

Just like you need that friend who will tell you when you have a piece of spinach caught in your teeth, you need an agency that will challenge you when making a request that they know isn’t in your best interest. Sometimes you might get a request from your boss for a crazy idea. Rather than an agency who just takes the order and makes it happen no matter the consequence, you want someone who is looking out for you. They should be an ally who can advocate for you and leverage data, industry best practices and their experience to make sure the work being performed is truly in alignment with your goals.

All of these elements will be present in an digital agency that will be your true partner. The agency you work with should view both your successes and failures as their own. This shows that they are fully invested in your team and are working with you to deliver the best possible product. No matter what it says on the contract, the primary job of a digital agency is to make you look great!