Ecommerce Development Retainers: How to Get the Most Benefit from Ongoing Support

Posted in Modern Business, ROI & KPIs

As ecommerce grows into its third decade, one fact is certain: it continually evolves. In this changing reality, retailers thrive when they keep evolving, too. In order to keep an ecommerce site working smoothly, as well as to take advantage of new tools and features, it helps to establish a long-term partnership with a development studio.

So, what does it mean to sign a client retainer agreement with Command C? And how can you make the most of it? In this episode of Recommerce, Founder Sara Bacon talks with Amanda Bernsohn, Lead Project Manager, about what to expect at different stages of retainers. You’ll learn:

  • What kind of ongoing work is covered in a monthly retainer
  • Why some retailers start with a large number of hours and scale it back with time
  • How retainer development addresses different ecommerce platforms issues, as well as third-party integrations
  • The strategy for setting your team up for success in working with an external agency, like Command C, on retainer, and more.

Full Episode Transcript

Sara: Hello and welcome to another episode of Recommerce. I’m Sara, the founder of Command C, and today I’m here with Amanda, our project management lead. We’re going to talk about retainers.

Amanda: Hi everyone. I’m Amanda. I lead a lot of retainer arrangements with our clients, and we’ve been working retainer structures for many years now. We’ve learned a lot along the way.

Sara: So, what type of merchant is a retainer arrangement a good fit for?

Amanda: Retainers are really best suited for businesses that want consistent engagement with their site.

Sara: And why would a business want or need that? How would they, I mean, in an ideal world, anyone would be like yeah, I want consistent engagement with my site, but what’s really the benefit of that setup?

Amanda: So retainers really encompass two different threads of site work. They cover ongoing maintenance of platform support and they also cover new features and site enhancements. Some platforms need more support and maintenance than others. And for those sites, we spend a lot of our time on site upkeep. It really depends on the platform mostly. But some platforms, like Shopify, don’t typically require a huge amount of maintenance. So we have a little bit more freedom to spend more of our time on building enhancements and moving the site forward with new features.

Retainers encompass two threads of site work: 1) ongoing maintenance of platform support and 2) new features and site enhancements.

Amanda: Presumably retainers bring with them a higher level of communication. So, for example, baked into our retainers is consistent meeting cadence. We meet either weekly or biweekly to make sure that everything’s moving forward on a regular basis. We have a lot of touch points. We work on retainer sites every week in sprints that are arranged to align with the client’s priorities. And what that leads to is consistent velocity.

Sara: What is velocity?

Amanda: So, velocity in this context is the speed and cadence with which a project moves forward. So the higher the velocity on site work, the more your dev team will be able to accomplish. It’s really about speed. If you’re on a retainer agreement with an agency, they know that they can work for X number of hours a month. So they set aside that time to devote to your site and they assign specific resources to make sure they’re available. It ensures that things are always moving forward as opposed to if you’re working on a project by project basis where one thing is completed and work stops until the next project is started up.

Sara: How do you determine what the velocity of a project should be? I imagine a lot of merchants have that question when they start an engagement like this. On one hand, I could see the benefit or the desire to just be like, “I want to move as quickly as possible.” But obviously the more resources you put towards a project, the more expensive that’s going to cost. How do you determine what’s appropriate for where you’re at as a business?

Amanda: That’s a really good question. So the question is why wouldn’t a client just want to go as quickly as possible all the time if they had the resources for that. And the truth is is that it’s really a conversation that we have about velocity at the outset. It’s something that we come to collaboratively with our clients. So there are a couple of considerations. The first thing to consider is really what your growth goals are for your site. The more aggressively you are trying to grow, the higher your velocity should be.

Secondly, you want to consider the stage you’re currently at. So, at Command C, as you know Sara, our model has always been Challenge,  Equilibrium, and Growth. It’s really important to know what stage you’re in because that will help inform how quickly you need to move. If you’re in the challenge phase, let’s say you have a thriving business and you just launched a new site and all of a sudden your conversions tanked, right? So that’s a challenge. At that point, we really want to get you out of that situation as quickly as possible. And that’s good motivation to begin with high velocity.

Velocity in this context is the speed and cadence with which a project moves forward.

We begin with high velocity, and then once we start moving into equilibrium, you might feel free to slow that velocity down a little. So it means that everything’s working as you expect, you’re not getting customer complaints from your site, and you can really start to stabilize and start thinking about growth and new goals. It’s always really a conversation between your goals and your current stage.

Sara: That’s a helpful point. I can think of an example of when we worked with a client and for the first year, and they were super aggressive with their velocity. They were investing a lot in the site, trying to move things forward as quickly as possible. And at the end of that year, they were kind of like, “We’re good. We’re happy with where our business is.” They pulled back some marketing dollars, and they scaled back their retainer engagement. I think it’s an interesting point that not all merchants are going for more and more and more. There can be a sweet spot where you’ve achieved your growth goals. But I think in that instance it’s important to consider that technology is always changing, and the internet is always changing, and best practices are always changing. Once you’re at that point, I think it’s also important to consider that you don’t want to pull back 100%.

But if you’re at an equilibrium point, what would an engagement look like when you want to maintain where you’re at, but you’re no longer in this aggressive-growth mode?

Amanda: Sure. We see that happen a lot actually because we do a lot of rescue projects, and people come to us in a state of challenge quite frequently. I mean that’s something we deal with every day. So a lot of the time, in that case, they kick off with a much more aggressive timeline, and a client might engage in a 60-hour retainer package with us. That means we’re working on their site 60 hours a month. And then, as we get away from the place of challenge, things start to stabilize. They don’t feel the need to put as much time, energy, and money into growth. And we’re out of the danger zone. Definitely, we see people scale back the retainer hours [at that point].

So that ensures that we’re still paying attention to the site. We’re still working on it on a regular basis. Nothing is falling through the cracks. Everybody’s eyes are still on it, and we’re still doing maintenance upkeep and tweaks here and there as they come up. But you’re nowhere near the original velocity that you are at because we’re working with fewer hours in the month.

Sara: I just want to touch on something you alluded to earlier, which is that a platform like Shopify doesn’t need a lot of upkeep, and a platform like Magento does. Let’s speak a little bit to kind of the differences. When we say upkeep, what are we talking about with regards to those two platforms?

Amanda: So they’re really different. I mean at the end of the day, they have the same function in terms of running an ecommerce store, but they’re really different. So Shopify is a hosted platform and with that comes a whole large team of employees keeping that platform up and running. So what we don’t deal with with Shopify is things like hosting issues. Sites don’t just come down for hosting-related issues. We don’t see a lot of security patches that we need to install or updates we need to do to the platform because those are being handled by Shopify themselves.

With Magento, since it’s more open source typically, we do have to do security patches on a regular basis or version upgrades, depending on what version of Magento you’re running. And essentially, you have a lot more freedom with Magento. But with that freedom comes a lot of responsibility. So there’s a lot more upkeep. Shopify tends to handle those things internally and frequently. We don’t even know when there are issues because they’ve either been handled so quickly that we don’t see them or they’ve managed to work around so that we don’t even know about.

Sara: So I mean, is it safe to say that there’s no upkeep with Shopify?

Amanda: Nope, no. That’s not safe to say. I mean we do have periodic upgrades. We have to do checkout upgrades with some frequency about once a year. It really depends on what version of Shopify you’re on as well. For example, if you’re on Shopify Plus, and you have a customized checkout, we have to do those upgrades.

And all of our sites, regardless of platform, utilize third-party integrations. Those are neither Magento nor Shopify. They typically are from independent developers, and we work with them. And as those get upgraded, sometimes we have to do upgrades. They don’t necessarily mesh with the platform you’re on right away. We’re always keeping an eye on third-party integrations because they’re so crucial to site upkeep. If something comes down, it can impact a really important feature on your site. We don’t want that to happen. So we definitely still need to be doing upkeep, even if it’s Shopify.

We’re always keeping an eye on third-party integrations because they’re so crucial to site upkeep.

Interlude: You are listening to Recommerce, a podcast for ecommerce and wearable brands navigating technical complexity and change brought to you by Command C, a development team that saves ecommerce retailers from outdated tech and ineffective operations with a strong focus on Magento and Shopify plus. You can learn more about how we help at

Sara: So, you’re clear that you need a retainer, you need consistent traction and communication on your site. As a client, how do you position yourself to get the most out of the investment that you’re making?

Amanda: Right, so that’s a good question. You’ve made this investment, you’ve decided to spend a certain amount of money investing into your site. How do you really get the most out of that? So, typically our clients engage in a retainer plan after we’ve completed a code audit on the site. That’s our internal workflow. A client comes in from a code audit, and then moves, generally speaking, into retainer package. The audit that we deliver contains time estimates for all the fixes and features that we’ve assessed and audited on the site. So we do a background audit and then we talk about new features and things that may be broken. And then we give you a sense of what kind of effort that will take. That list becomes the initial backlog of work that we’ll be undertaking. This is generally how it works, but of course, there are exceptions.

We kick off a retainer plan by meeting with the client to make sure we’re aligned on priorities.

Amanda: So we kick off a retainer plan by meeting with the client to make sure we’re aligned on priorities. And this typically is something the client will arrange, from a business side, what’s the highest priority? And to a certain extent, we weigh on that priority as well. But it really comes from the client. And then we usually work in that order.

Another thing we do is establish a schedule for regular calls. These are generally biweekly for the most part. And then we set up a sprint, which is a predetermined batch of work that we aim to complete in two weeks before our next call. So we have your list of priorities. We’re working in order to make sure that we’re aligning with your business goals. And then as we work things out, we have a call, generally speaking twice a month, to make sure we’re all aligned to let you know how it’s been going. In some cases, we give demos to show what’s working on stage. Then we keep in close communication about ongoing work. And then we meet again every two weeks.

We’re working in order to make sure that we’re aligning with your business goals.

This keeps the site moving forward. It keeps that cadence that we were talking about earlier. It’s really important to have regular check-ins to get the most out of your retainer. And then we set up another sprint and in the cycle continues. In this model, there’s always work in progress at different stages. So some things are waiting to be deployed, somethings we’re starting to investigate, we’re doing an initial investigation. And then, of course, things have been launched already and we may be monitoring them or tweaking them now that they’ve been live. So we’re looking at how your customers are responding and we’re sort of, all eyes are on the things that we’ve been recently deployed and we’re making sure they’re working. And then once that it’s clear that they’re working for you, we sort of crossed them off our list and move on.

Sara: You mentioned priorities, and it occurred to me that this is a really important point when working with an outside agency, right? So if you have an in-house team of developers that you’re working with, presumably they’re in on all your internal meetings. The lines of communication might just inherently be a little bit more open in terms of kind of knowing what’s a priority and what’s not. I think that this is a really important point and kind of a distinguishing factor when you’re working with an external agency. There’s a lot that you get to offload onto that agency, but there are also some specific things that you can do and will need to do to ensure success. I think that’s one of those points that’s so crucial: constantly making sure that priorities are clear because we will be working in siloed chunks of time. We’re not going to constantly be on the phone, constantly be chatting. Of course, we will do that when it makes sense. But to be efficient, that making sure that those priorities are there is such an important piece of this mix.

Amanda: Right. For sure. So we work in as much of an agile way as we can. So we work in sprints. And like you said, we can’t be talking every day in the same way that we would if we were sitting in the same room with a team. And we also don’t want to do that because we want to be as efficient as possible and allow our developers to put their heads down around really tough problems. Essentially, these are challenges you’re having. Our team needs to be able to focus on them for a few days, few weeks at a time.

It is really important that we about your priorities as your working with us. And what that means is a few things. So the one thing we ask about that’s crucial to us, we like to confirm that we’re receiving a priority list and feedback from a centralized person or team on the client side. So it can be really tricky when we get a lot of feedback from a lot of different folks on the client side because we’re not clear on whether or not those directions have been aligned. Sometimes they’re conflicting and we don’t necessarily know if the priorities are actually the businesses priorities. It’s important that as a client team you get together and you get buy-in from your whole team and you’re paying attention to what the priorities should be.

The challenge when you move into Equilibrium is really knowing how to move forward.

Amanda: So as we mentioned earlier, there are three phases a site can be in when it comes to us: Challenge, Equilibrium or Growth. If a site’s currently challenged, that means that there are issues on the site and that things are not working. Something, either conversions are not happening, things are broken, customers are complaining, and it can be a little bit more clear what priorities are in that phase because you’re working hard to solve those pain points. The challenge when you move into equilibrium is really knowing how to move forward. Once you solve the issues, you’re in equilibrium and you want to move toward growth. So then what do you do? This is a big question for everybody, all the time. We’re not talking here about driving more traffic to the site because we focus only on onsite conversions, but in terms of growth, things that we can work on are increasing conversions on the site, increasing average order value, and driving repeat customers. So we want to start thinking about strategies around those three things and how we can grow your site.

From there, it’s really all about growth. We start to see what’s working for you, you move towards those things, and vice versa. We were in a lot of communication once you’re growing about how to grow more, if that’s your goal. That’s not everybody’s goal, as you said earlier.

Sara: So kind of a segway from the priorities conversation is kind of talking about this idea of a backlog. How important is that and how do you establish and manage one?

Amanda: Right, so backlog is really important. First of all, it makes sure that your dev team is always busy and working. As we know, there are always things to be worked on, so it’s important that your developers know what those things are so that they can keep moving, even moments of what seem like downtime on your end. It ensures that everybody is moving toward the goals that you’ve set forth.

There are always things to be worked on, so it’s important that your developers know what those things are so that they can keep moving, even in moments that seem like downtime.

Amanda: A backlog is also important and helpful in the sense that things come up throughout the month that you might not want us to work on right away. It might be something that you’re thinking about six months out, but a backlog can be really useful to keep track of those things. Sometimes you have an idea for your site and it just sits there. You write it down on a piece of paper and it’s gone, but this gets us thinking about those things. We can weigh in on them. Even if we’re not going to work on them for a few months, we can give you a sense of the amount of effort. We can tell you other ways you might want to consider that may not need as many resources as you want to allot to it. It’s just a great way and because a backlog is always prioritized, you can just leave those things at the bottom of your backlog. It means that we’re not approaching them anytime soon unless you change your mind and want to do it more quickly, but they’re still in the conversation. We can talk about the on-calls if we want to. We can discuss alternatives. We can be looking into third parties. There are a lot of things we can do for things that you’re not currently working on but that are in your backlog.

Sara: That’s really great info. I want to wrap up but before we do, I keep coming back to this idea that like wow, this sounds like a lot of work. What’s the benefit of working with an outside agency on a retainer?

Amanda: Right, so you’re right, it definitely does require a high level of engagement on the part of our clients. Retainers are the right path if you want to be involved on a regular basis. One of the benefits, I mean a huge benefit, of working with the development team is that you have a whole team. I mean it’s not just one person in-house who has a role to work on your site. I mean you have project management, you have some creative resources potentially, you have a team of developers and we have a lot of experience. We’ve been doing this for 15 years, and you have a lot of folks working on your site.

Sara: QA, too. (Quality assurance)

Amanda: QA for sure. That’s a big one. So for the cost of a retainer, not even our highest price retainer, it might be less expensive than hiring one person in-house, depending on your market. So you really get a lot of bang for your buck. And as your needs change, you can change your retainer. You can’t always do that with an in-house staff member. You can give us more time to work on your site. You can invest more and then decide in three months that you want to sort of take the break that you had been referring to earlier. And as things are in equilibrium, you can coast a little and then you may change your mind again or a migration might come up and so you approach that. There are a lot of ways in which it can be really flexible for you in ways that potentially an in house team might not be quite able to contract and then grow as need be.

Sara: That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much for your time today. It’s been a great conversation.

Amanda: Yeah, of course. Thank you. This is awesome.

Sara: Have a good one.

Amanda: You too.

Sara: Thanks for listening. We hope you join us again for another episode of Recommerce.