5 forgotten RFP questions that can help identify a great agency partner

When drafting an RFP for a new digital product, there are a number of questions that you’ll typically want to include. What kind of development process does the vendor employ? What is the experience level of the consultants on the project? What will the price and timeline be for the expected feature set, and when can we expect the product to launch?

But beyond the necessary details are the qualitative questions that separate a great product development partner from a lousy one—the questions that will identify whether a vendor relationship will be enjoyable or frustrating. These questions aren’t always easy to quantify, and admittedly won’t make sense within the text of an RFP, but are essential components of the agency selection process that clients typically neglect—and regret it.

Most products are focused on the needs of the end users—but the best agencies consider their clients as users in their own right, users of the agency’s services that are just as important as the end users who will use the product. In essence, consider yourself the user of the agency. How well will your agency address your real needs? Beyond how well they’ll execute the project, also be critical of what these agencies will do for you. To assess that, you can begin by asking yourself these questions during your agency search.

When evaluating agency partners, remember to not only evaluate how well the vendor will execute the project, but also be critical of what these agencies will do for you as their client.

Does the agency practice what it preaches?

If you’re currently in the process of researching software design and development agencies, you’ve probably noticed how common it is for those agencies (Punchkick Interactive included) to market themselves as “user-first” or “user-centric.” For a long time, being focused on the user as a principle was a competitive differentiator for software agencies like ours, but today, agencies tend to use the concept of user-first product development as little more than a base requirement for website SEO, or as a way to get their foot in the door for early-stage sales meetings. Simply put, the marketing of “user-first” has become hackneyed. User-first is a buzzword.

And that’s a good thing. The more that agencies like Punchkick and our client partners focus on building products that deliver actual value for users—as opposed to simply checking boxes from lists of features, which were developed by several business units in multiple solution design meetings—the better we all start to look in the eyes of our diverse audiences. As you conduct your next agency search, be sure to include companies that really market and defend the principles of user-first design and development in practice.

The more that agencies focus on building products that deliver actual value for users, the better we all get at addressing the needs of our diverse audiences.

How well do you feel listened to?

A catalyst for a healthy, growing relationship is good listening. Good listening is something we’ve all been trained on from the time we were kids, and bad listening is easy to spot early on. Great listening—the kind you should be looking for—requires the listener be capable of picking up on other signals, things that aren’t said in conversation, but are just as critical to understanding who you are and what you need.

At Punchkick, our product owners are intentional about “eliciting” requirements for new software products or features. Eliciting requirements is much different than gathering or listing them because it places a proactive focus on seeking to understand the user and business needs behind a particular product or feature. Some of the best features Punchkick has helped build over the last decade were ideated after initial contracts were signed, during early solution design periods, where empathetic listening allowed us to help our clients invent something even better than they had originally imagined.

Will your support team make your life easier?

One of the biggest horror stories that companies can tell is about the agency that made their job unbearable. When you choose to work with a third party, you put your trust in their team to design, build, and launch something amazing. As a client, a very realistic assumption you should have of your new full-service design and development agency is that they’re going to make your life both easier and more enjoyable. Building custom software should be fun.

Building custom software should be fun. And your agency partner should ensure that every stage of the product development process makes clients’ jobs easier and more effective.

One question you should ask every agency is about who your daily contacts will be, and what specifically they will provide you with. At Punchkick, for example, every employee—from account managers to quality assurance testing engineers—can pick up the phone and ensure your needs are met. For daily operations, however, our support teams cover three bases. Account managers ensure you’re happy with the experience you’re having each week. If anything feels wrong, they fix it. Project managers keep development teams running efficiently so your budget requirements are met, your products are delivered on time, and communication lines are open and transparent. Finally, strategists ensure that your requirements are not only accurately communicated to designers and developers, but are also continually ideated upon as things change to ensure the product will be industry-leading when it launches.

Will you be able to learn something new?

The coolest thing about working with a software agency is that you get to play a leading role in designing and building something that never existed before. That generally means you’re going to be exposed to concepts and ways of working that are unfamiliar to you, at least in the beginning. Any great custom software agency will treat you like a partner in the process—rather than just a paycheck and a rubber stamp—and will go out of its way to ensure that the process is one that supports an objective of continuous education.

At Punchkick, we practice this idea of continuous education starting early, with design. Rather than spending months drafting the most “pretty” artwork we can, Punchkick designers use the process to teach clients about best practices in user experience design, color theory, accessibility, and the effectiveness of specific interactions, animations, transitions, and other UX considerations.

Does the agency make recommendations that help your brand long-term?

Software is never a one-and-done activity because technology changes faster than almost anything else you’ll deal with in your day-to-day job. The best software development agencies approach projects with this in mind. But, more important than scaleable technology, your agency should be relentlessly focused on your long-term brand vision. Believe it or not, not every development agency has the marketing chops to bring a vision to life. Corey Wainwright from HubSpot says, “[T]he easiest way to tell if I could trust an agency (and the best way I tried to build a sincere and effective relationship with my clients) is to see whether they were willing to be honest with me. Even when the truth kind of hurt.”

Because the best software development agencies approach your business as if it were their own, they’re unafraid to offer advice about better ways to use technology to create growth for you. If the advice sounds counter-intuitive to your method of thinking, it could be that they’ve uncovered a critical insight that could only be found by someone outside your company.

The best software development agencies think of your business as if it were their own, and ground every decision around how well it’ll help your team meet its goals.

Questions like these most likely won’t make it into your RFP, and they rarely get answered in traditional agency review cycles. The only way learn whether a new agency will be a true partner, making your life easier and ensuring long-term success for your mobile marketing efforts, is by picking up the phone and asking these questions directly. You’ll feel even better if you ask to speak to a fully functioning product development team that’s responsible for creating successful products.

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