James Scott
James Scott 8 September 2016

Time to Switch Digital Agency? Here's How to Make Sure You Don't Miss the Boat

Having adopted responsibility for the support, maintenance and ongoing improvement of dozens of existing websites over the years, Netcel has developed a robust process to ensure that organisations experience continuity of service when transitioning from one digital agency partner to another. Here are a few of the lessons we’ve learned during that time.

Should you stay or should you go?

The decision to change agency can come about for lots of reasons. In our experience, most organisations contact us to discuss a transition if their incumbent partner is:

  • Too slow to deliver work or respond to queries
  • Delivering work of reduced/reducing quality
  • Failing to challenge their requirements

This type of experience can be the result of all kinds of things. Perhaps there’s a high staff churn, or the agency is understaffed, or it’s staffed by people with the wrong skills. Perhaps they’re restructuring after a change of ownership, or have just taken on another big brand and haven’t scaled up the team appropriately yet, leaving their existing clients wanting.

As I said, the reasons for switching are numerous and varied. If you’ve already talked through your issues with your incumbent and things still haven’t improved, then it’s time to seek out a new agency partner. If you’re in a position to get word-of-mouth references from your peers, that’s a great place to start. You might also want to check out your CMS provider’s key partners, usually listed on their website. For example, if you go to Episerver's site you will see that Netcel is a Premium Partner.

The wealth of experience and creativity that top tier partners possess should ensure first class delivery of online projects.

But this piece isn’t about choosing a new agency or explaining the transition process end-to-end. It’s about highlighting some of the key things to be aware of to help make the process as painless as possible.

We've also created this handy checklist to walk you through the transition process. You can download it here.ChecklistSmall-(1).jpg

In sickness and in health

So it’s time to switch agencies. Your preferred new partner has great technical capabilities, and you’ve fallen in love with the creative ideas that their resident hipster has presented to you with a relentless rising inflection. But before you can expect your new agency to build on the foundations of your existing digital estate and bring these ideas to life, they need to go through a transition process to ensure that they’ll be able to keep the lights on. Conducting a structured transition means they’ll be in a position to respond to support requests within agreed SLAs (Service Level Agreements), and avoid high costs and extended timescales when delivering projects. It’s not the most exciting aspect of building a new agency relationship, but skimping on the detail in this initial stage, could lead to unwanted surprises and frustration further down the line.

Here are ten key things to consider before making the switch:  


1. The code, the whole code, and everything else…including the code.

No agency should claim to be able to take responsibility for your digital estate without first assessing the way it’s been put together. If you want credible estimates for prospective enhancements, or need to understand the scale of the transition process itself, you need to provide your would-be agencies with a cut of the current solution source code, along with any other documentation that might help them understand the implementation. If they haven’t had a look “under the bonnet” and provided some meaningful feedback on what they find there, then no estimates produced can be considered reliable.

At Netcel, we can help you work out what to request and how to request it from your incumbent provider, so that we can assess the existing site/s and advise on the scope of the transition work, and how the current implementation lends itself to meeting your objectives.

2. Technical audit – a stitch in time

While costs and timescales associated with making a transition are necessary side-effects of switching agency, to really ensure best value for money going forward, it makes sense to commission a technical audit as part of the process. As described in the first point above, the initial code review seeks to clarify the breadth of the solution and identify its constituent parts and the general approach with which it’s been put together. A technical audit goes further into assessing the quality of the solution in terms of best practice architecture and coding standards, actively seeking out areas for improvement that, once addressed, would allow future work to be completed more quickly and with less effort. Essentially, an upfront investment like this, could lead to cost savings many times over the initial investment.

3. Secure a graceful exit

No agency likes to lose clients. At Netcel we’ve been fortunate in that we’ve seen very little attrition; nearly all of our clients have been with us for five years or more (double the industry average) because we seek to evolve our offering in line with their needs. How we do this is perhaps best saved for a phone call or a chat over coffee once you’ve finished reading this article. For now, let’s focus on your exit strategy.
When the time comes for you to break the news to your incumbent partner, what you’d hope is that there’s a level of professionalism in place that means they will participate openly in any handover process. They’re well within their rights to charge you for the time associated with packaging up source code and answering questions from your new agency, so you should budget for this, but the total amount of effort involved could be as little as a few hours, or up to a handful of days, so high fees should be very difficult to justify. Ensure you get transparency upfront on any projected costs.

4. Mind the gap

While your transition plan should state a firm date and time from which your new agency partner will be responsible for all of the support and maintenance of your solution, you should look to retain access to services from your outgoing supplier for a week or so after that point, just in case a scenario occurs within the initial live running of the solution that would benefit from their perspective. In our experience, we’ve not had to call on a previous agency to resolve issues quickly, but it’s a worthwhile insurance policy to have them on hand, just in case any unexpected idiosyncrasies are uncovered.

5. Avoid hidden fees

We’re an agency that likes to be entirely transparent about costs, and how they break down across the various elements of our service. However, agency fee structures differ and some agencies wrap different types of fees into a single engagement. For example, for some of the sites we’ve inherited, software subscriptions and hosting fees have been lumped in with an agency retainer. This can make it tricky to compare like-for-like costs with agencies such as ourselves who keep software subscription, hosting and support/consultancy fees separate for the benefit of clients.

When you start to consider a transition, you should ask your incumbent agency to be ultra-clear about the breakdown of any fees you pay, so that you can compare and budget appropriately for professional services from a new partner.

6. Don’t wait, start to create

There’s no need to wait for the technical transition to finish before you can start planning your next phase of global digital domination. Although you should have a single point of contact for project coordination, you should also be able to engage with your new agency’s strategic and creative consultants while the technical aspects of the transition are running. The resources involved in each aspect are different.

The transition phase is the ideal window of opportunity for your new agency to be on-boarded and get a deeper appreciation for your business objectives. Together you can start to roadmap future initiatives, so that once the technical transition is done, you can hit the ground running.

It’s also a great time to introduce any other relevant partners into the mix. For example, if you require your new digital partner to collaborate with your branding agency then you can start to build those relationships.

7. But don’t do too much at once

Planning for the future is fine, but what you shouldn’t try to do as part of the transition, is fix a huge backlog of issues. Replicating the existing solution, warts and all, is an important first step, and until this “null deployment” has been validated successfully, you shouldn’t try to tackle any of the bugs that have been bugging you for the past 6 months. The transition is the ideal time to prioritise these issues and get them logged in your new agency’s systems, to be addressed once the switch-over is complete.

8. Play your part well

Your new agency may be amazing, but you can’t expect them to have a pixel perfect understanding of your entire digital estate on day one, despite a detailed technical transition. The process should, therefore, involve a User Acceptance Testing (UAT) phase, during which you assume a crucial verification role. Here, your task is to make certain that the replica of your website existing within your new agency’s technical environments is identical in presentation, behaviour and functionality to your live website. After all, no one knows your website and objectives better than you!

9. Make the most of your downtime

Depending on whether your transition also involves a change of hosting provider or not, you may need to prepare for a very small window of downtime. While “zero downtime” options are available, they can be more expensive, so if there’s a point during the week where your traffic is minimal, special arrangements may need to be made for the actual switchover.

In any case, there will come a point in the process where you need to invoke a code freeze, and then a content freeze. Wherever possible, code changes to the live site should be avoided once your new agency has taken its final cut of the source code for replication. Content is easier to sync, but there will likely be a short period of time in which content changes should not be made to the live site. You should plan ahead for this and ensure it has been scheduled into your organisation’s content plans.

10. Great expectations (and how to manage them)

As per the very first item in this list, you need to gather viewpoints from your prospective agencies on the overheads likely to be associated with the transition process. However, every solution is different and at Netcel we’ve known simple sites to be transitioned within two weeks, and complex digital estates to take three to four months. 

The technical process of replicating your solution on your new agency’s environments can be very quick indeed (perhaps just a matter of days), but it’s the familiarisation exercise, and the spread of knowledge around the agency team that can’t be rushed.

If you absolutely need support immediately because, for example, your contract has expired with your incumbent provider, then an interim measure could be to ask your new agency to provide services without SLAs in place. They’ll be learning on the job though, so until the familiarisation exercises associated with a structured transition have been completed, every single request will take longer and therefore cost more than if it were being handled post-transition. It’s a risk, but it’s less risky than having no support!

In short

If you’ve chosen a top-tier CMS partner then a technically competent agency should be capable of transitioning over a new client. However, their ability to anticipate and deal with the range of factors that can influence the scope of a transition may vary considerably. Before choosing any new supplier you should gauge whether they have considered the following variants:

  • The scale and complexity of the solution
  • How closely the solution architecture follows best practice principles
  • The coding standards applied
  • The hosting and deployment platforms, partners and processes
  • How willing and able the incumbent supplier is to participate in handover dialogue
  • The availability of existing technical documentation. 

Around 50% of Netcel client relationships began as transitions but have progressed far beyond just keeping the lights on. However, a good grounding in replicating and looking after the site has helped us establish firm foundations on which to deliver continuous improvement and add further value through strategic initiatives.

If you’re thinking of switching your digital agency but are unsure of where to start, then just give us a call on 01727 736 020 or email for some impartial advice and a no obligation assessment of your needs.

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