What to Ask a Potential Ecommerce Development Agency?

Posted in Strategy & Discovery

As someone in the ecommerce space, you’ve likely interacted with development agencies, and if not, you’ll probably need to in the future. 

Ecommerce managers who are handling the day to day operations don’t often have the technical know-how to implement new features or make substantial site changes beyond content. That’s where a development agency comes in. The lack of technical knowledge by the ecommerce manager (that’s not what you were hired for!) has the potential to lead to undesirable outcomes for projects. But don’t fear, we’re here to arm you with the advice to give your project  the best chance at success.

It’s important for non-technical people to be able to communicate with development teams (and vice versa) and get the important points of their project across. Whether you’re wanting to update the design of your store, looking to migrate platforms, or need to overhaul parts of your backend, you’re going to want to find a development agency you can trust to not only get the job done, but to do it within scope and your proposed budget and timeframe. 

In this article, we’re going to walk you through questions you can ask a potential ecommerce development agency such as:

  • What general questions you should ask agencies you’re looking to hire
  • How to determine the scope of the project
  • How to come up with a realistic timeframe
  • What will go into the cost and how to create a budget
  • What will happen post collaboration

Let’s jump into the questions!

Questions in General

We want you to understand what developers need to know about your project. In this first part, we’ll walk through a few initial questions to ask potential development agencies to help find if they’re the best fit for your project.  

  1. What are your scope of services? What can you do for us? What does a typical project look like with regards to responsibilities?
    Not all development agencies provide every type of service. One agency might be amazing at front-end design and development, while another agency is expert at platform migration, but not so much the design part. You’ll already get it out in the open how the agency can help your team and if their skills align with your project. A question like this can help eliminate certain agencies that don’t have the expertise you’re seeking. Also, a team who doesn’t have a clear focus or know where their sweet spot lies can suffer from jack-of-all trades syndrome – they may be able to do a handful of things decently and nothing expertly. Just something to watch out for! 
  2. What percentage (roughly) of your projects are ecommerce? How much experience do you have working with our specific platform (if they have one)?
    You might be looking for help with a very specific platform like Magento, and the agency you’re talking to are BigCommerce experts, so it’s important to understand where their expertise lies. Different platforms are going to have different technical challenges.

    Asking about the amount of ecommerce projects helps ensure that the agency works within your space. Although a development agency focused on WordPress might be great at their job, they likely won’t have the specialized knowledge for your ecommerce store’s needs.  
  3. Write a list of your three biggest wish list items and your three biggest fears/concerns about the project, and be ready to discuss these.

    This is a great exercise to already get fears and expectations out in the open. For example, “We’re concerned about losing subscription customers if the subscription migration is bumpy” or “We would love it if, in the future, we were able to track something specific or if customers could save additional data to their profile that we’ll integrate with our CRM for future marketing, etc.” This exercise also helps you get concrete in what you really want out of the project and makes clear to the agency how you will measure success. Setting goals and voicing common pitfalls are keys to success

Scope of the Project

The scope of the project is important to get right with a potential agency. The last thing you want is to go over budget or deadline due to miscommunication over the scope. Or to realize halfway into the project that you missed a key element of the project that now needs to be included in the budget.

Come to the initial meeting with all the information you’ve gathered and an open mind. Self-prescription is one of the biggest pitfalls we encounter during the technical planning process of any project. Which is why we recommend a discovery process

Formal discovery is designed to help clients share all the information they have about the problems they’re trying to solve, so that our team here at Command C can assemble, research and validate possible solutions. Sometimes this means looking into solutions you’ve already identified, so that work isn’t necessarily wasted, but we find projects to be much more successful when we work from the problem outward, rather than from a solution inward.

It’s a good idea to ask about a discovery-type process that a development agency will do to look at your project as a whole and determine the best solution. 

Here are some scope-related questions and concerns you should make sure to bring up:

  1. Relay early on about plans to use platforms and/or code/services you’re already using and ask about potential pitfalls.
    There’s a difference between replatforming entirely from Magento to Shopify versus creating a strategy to roll out a new Shopify theme with new features on the same instance of the platform you’re already using. Make sure these expectations are already communicated so the agency already understands what you want in the final deliverable.
  2. In what scenarios would you recommend installing an app vs. custom development and/or creatively leveraging native solutions?
    Put another way: What is your (the agency’s) general approach to selecting and installing apps/plugins to solve specific problems that are not addressed by the native solution or available development tooling. Apps and custom development have their own pros and cons both longterm and shortterm, so it’s important to discuss these when in talks with a development agency. A custom-built solution might totally solve your issue, but it may require ongoing development support that needs to be budgeted in. 
  3. How much experience does the development team have with data and/or platform migration (in the case of platform, with our specific platforms)? What are some challenges you’ve overcome in the past, specifically with regards to data and/or platform migration? What challenges do you anticipate our project will have, given what you know so far?
    A development agency should be comfortable being open about specific challenges that could arise during the project, as there usually can be some depending on the complexity. You’ll also want to get a grasp of the experience they have with the particular goal you’re trying to achieve (ie. migration from BigCommerce to Magento). Experience with these platforms means less likelihood of unforeseen issues arising during the project. 

Timeline Questions

Aside from budget, you’re likely keen to get a project done by a certain date. You might have a strict deadline, for example if you’re aiming to get the change live before the holiday season. Alternatively, you might have a more relaxed timeline in which you hope to get the project done within a few months but there is no concrete due date.

Depending on whether or not the project has a very concrete deadline, you’ll want to be asking certain questions: 

Concrete Deadline

  1. If you have a concrete deadline you need to hit and/or business requirements for launch, you should relay that as early as possible, and then ask the developer if it is realistic to responsibly complete this project in the time frame desired? 

  2. If it is realistic, when would they need to get started?
    This helps agencies determine the cadence for exploration discovery and scope of work development. 
  3. If it is not realistic, you should ask yourself whether or not you’re willing to complete the project in phases, launching with an MVP and rolling out additional features shortly thereafter.
    Having a good sense of what is a must have vs. what would be nice to have (e.g. what would you be willing to push into a later phase) will be critical to effectively communicating your needs. 
  4. In either case above, what level of time commitment have I signed my team up for in order to meet the launch date goal?
    In many cases, the best projects are going to be a team effort between yourself and the agency.

No Specific Deadline

  1. If you don’t have a specific launch date in mind, then be sure to ask what is realistic, and explore your options with the developer.


  1. How much is this going to cost now vs. in the future?
    More specifically, you can ask: what information do you need in order to establish a rough ballpark for initial development cost (and timeline)? What ongoing costs do you (the development agency) anticipate, based on what you know today? Rather than just asking the upfront cost, it’s important to understand the initial cost and the cost of maintaining the changes in the long run. This can include ongoing support, tweaks if there are custom-built solutions, etc. 
  2. How should I expect Total Cost of Ownership to be calculated for this project?
    This lets the agency talk about the different things you as the project owner need to consider, from initial development to hosting to platform licensing to apps, some of which are up front costs and some of which are recurring, etc.

    It’s almost never possible to deliver a total cost of ownership without a discovery phase. Without that, an agency can still prepare you for the kinds of things you’ll expect to see. 
  3. Just like with timeline, budget can be a driver toward the MVP approach.
    You should ask yourself whether or not you’re willing to complete the project in phases, launching with an MVP and rolling out additional features shortly thereafter. Having a good sense of what is a must have vs. what would be nice to have (e.g. what would you be willing to push into a later phase and pay for separately) will be critical to effectively communicating your needs.

Post Collaboration

  1. What happens after launch? How does our relationship change on both a budget and communication front? What happens when we want to add a new feature next year?
    This helps establish an expectation of when work would totally end or what ongoing costs and collaboration there might be. A project can be “over” in a sense that, for example, the migration is complete. But there could be ongoing work needed if an app that previously worked with the database no longer works, or, if there is a custom-built solution, what happens if your team needs some work done on it. This could mean an hourly fee based on work or some other arrangement. But it’s best to get this answered so you know what to expect after the project.

Of course there will be other questions to ask a potential ecommerce development agency before signing them on to work on your store, but these are some initial questions and points to help get you through that first meeting to see if they’re a fit. As a company that solves complex technical problems for ecommerce stores, we hope this knowledge helps you start seeking out a team to help with that big project you might have been putting off. 

And if you’re looking for help from Command C specifically, reach out here and we can explore options with you to see if we’re the right fit. 


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