How to engage a custom development agency

Thinking about outsourcing some custom development? Here's what you need to consider...
July 13, 2022

So you are thinking about outsourcing some custom development? Well, the process of vendor selection can be arduous but there are some guidelines worth sticking to. So before outlining some of our thoughts on engaging an outsourced custom development agency, it is worth understanding the main reasons why you would use one in the first place. 

Generally, companies looking to outsource fall into one of three areas: 

  1. Lack of resource capacity (they have the knowledge to deliver a project internally but have other priorities for their own team). 
  2. Lack of capability (they don’t have the specialist expertise in-house to deliver the project).
  3. In search of new perspectives (they need an external partner to help offer a new strategic point of view as well as the ability to deliver a fresh approach and implement modern technology that isn’t shackled to existing, legacy systems).  

The task of finding a reliable, strong, valuable partner who can guide, advise, deliver and maintain your custom built software solution, is a vitally important part of the process.

Here are our thoughts to bear in mind when going about selecting a vendor. 

Goal - It seems obvious to say but having clarity of what your organisation’s goal is, is paramount to the success of engaging with any software development partner. You definitely don’t need to have all the answers in terms of what the solution needs to be, or any specification for that matter - a good agency will work with you to clearly define and scope that out. But have a clear goal in mind. By goals we mean things like: What is/are the specific challenge(s) you want to solve? What does success look like? And are there any specific, measurable KPIs that you would like to hit? 

Research - There are many ways to go about researching agencies but generally there are two which we think are the most effective and least time-consuming.

Firstly, recommendations.  From our perspective, we can confirm that this is the number one source of leads for us as an agency. Speak to people you know who have worked with outsourced development partners before and ask what the process was like and ultimately, the project success.

Secondly, whilst simple search engine research is standard practice, it is worth pointing out there has been an increased presence in vendor directories over the past few years with some well established players -  like Clutch - who list agencies for different competencies with the added benefit of verified client reviews. There is no better rubber stamp than that of a multitude of positive, independent client reviews. These directories are a great way to start your search or to simply sanity check your selection. 

Engagement models - What do we mean by engagement models? In essence, is the agency open to different commercial constructs for projects, be it; fixed price for a fixed scope, Time & Materials, revenue share, a share of the business or a blend of more than one of these. Having flexibility in engagement is a good sign of a confident, stable and strong development partner. 

Budget - As a client, when you are engaging a potential agency, it helps to be clear on your budget. We completely understand that while knowing what something costs before it is scoped is impossible, it is important to know your budget range in advance to ensure no one is wasting their time. Depending on the solution you want built, custom development can cost anything from £20k-£2 million and beyond. We often use the analogy of buying a house. For a fruitful search, you have to know how much you can afford to spend before you speak to an agent - if you are looking for a two bed house, it may cost between £250k and £2.5 million. Which end of the scale you are is dependent on the specifications and your requirements? 

A budget range will allow any potential agency to best advise on the approach to the custom build, from strategy to design and of course the technology itself. If you need to get internal approval for a budget before you start a tender process, we would suggest having informal, high-level conversations with some preferred suppliers beforehand to get a broad idea of potential investment required. At Clock, we often quote to do User Experience/Design work as a discrete project on a fixed cost basis before quoting for the full project. This helps to refine the scope of the project and give the developers more guidance to enable an accurate full build cost. It is a reassuring approach for both the client and the supplier as it mitigates ambiguity for both sides. 

Support and On-going Services - Whilst building the platform or product is important, so too is the aftercare. Your platform will need to be maintained, optimised and remain secure for the duration of its lifetime. Agencies that offer wraparound maintenance and support services are vested in the long term success of your business and anything that they have built for you. Make sure they have you covered beyond the initial project, whatever it is. 24/7 support is a good place to start if your product or application is business critical. 

Portfolio - Whilst a strong portfolio is important, it is worth remembering that agencies sometimes can’t talk about some of the great work they do publicly because of confidentiality agreements with clients who like to be discreet about the work that they do. And whilst it is important and beneficial to have sector specific knowledge, it is worth investigating the kinds of problems they have solved with their solutions, rather than simply if they have worked within the same industry. 

Technology - Tech is changing all the time. Some agencies are very focussed on a particular type of technology - which may or may not be advantageous. It is however important to remember that tech moves at the speed of…..well…the speed of tech. Browser technology updates regularly, new Content Management Systems are forever popping up in the market and tech frameworks change quicker than the weather on a typical British spring day! If your chosen agency has the ability to adapt and be at the cutting edge of the latest and emergent development techniques and technology, then that is very beneficial. At Clock, our approach is to look at our clients’ challenges and goals, then choose the appropriate tech that is best suited to the brief. Rather than shoehorning something that is not relevant, we aim to be tech agnostic. If you are outsourcing and don’t want to be hampered by legacy tech, look for the agencies who are continually updating their tech stack. 

Trust - This is a huge factor in the success of any relationship between client and supplier. When it comes to custom software development, it is vital that both parties are confident in each other’s ability and dedication to the project. As a client, if you are looking to engage a custom software developer and you know exactly what you want to build, you may be better off hiring your own developer and in-sourcing. An agency will offer strategic advice and expertise to develop and define the scope based on your challenges and goals. Trust is built up over time. Whilst it can be hard to trust a new supplier from the get-go until they have  earned their stripes, the best project results stem from allowing your supplier to get on with delivery. Small, discrete pieces of work prior to a major project - if possible - can be a great way for both parties to test the water with each other.

If you have done your research, and maybe taken heed of some of the tips in this article, you can be confident that the end result will fulfil - and hopefully exceed - your expectations.

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