E-commerce is complex and there are a lot of skills and knowledge sets that are required to build and manage it carefully. Often vendors are hired to help with parts or all of it; or for specific projects like major redesigns or large scale integrations. For those that are considering hiring an e-commerce agency, a digital agency or systems integrator (SI), it’s likely that you are thinking of a vendor review process such as an RFI (Request for Information) or RFP (Request for Proposal) to help inform your selection.

The following tips will serve as a guide for what to include in your RFI/RFP to make sure the responses are meaningful, valid and accurate. Vendors will provide far more accurate proposals and responses if this information is included up front.

1. Consider Starting with a Discovery Phase

Unless you have very tight specs or a BRD (see #2), consider a Discovery phase first. Without a clear scope, it’s unlikely the vendors bids will be very easy to compare, as each bid may include/exclude different components. One of the best ways to get ‘apples to apples’ bids is to request a discovery exercise first. This will ensure that the vendors sincerely understand your project/requirements, and the bids you receive will be much easier to compare.

In many cases, these types of ‘Discovery’ phases can help you to define your project. A good vendor will know how to tease out the current challenges, business goal, etc. with the goal being to define a comprehensive set of requirements for the actual larger project.

Within this phase, you could reasonably request:

  • that the vendor works within a price range that you are budgeting for, as you would with an architect designing a building.
  • proposals that will plan out the larger project, through UX and visual designs.
  • that a detailed business requirements document (BRD) will be provided as a key deliverable.

In doing so, you reduce the risk for yourself and the vendors. The definition from the initial Discovery phase will take a lot of the guess work out of it for the vendor, and they can submit a proposal with greater confidence in what that the larger portion of the project will entail. For the merchant, it provides assurance that they can still opt to ask for additional proposals for the ‘build and deploy’ components of the project. The costs will still be significant, but the chances of scope creep due to unforeseen additional requirements will be drastically less likely.

2. Detailed Business Requirements Guarantee a Smoother Process

In our experience, most merchants embarking on an e-commerce project will not have their business requirements documented in any great detail. They might have high level business requirements, but getting into the minutiae and sharing this with the vendors, will certainly make a difference in the accuracy of the bids they are able to provide, for reasons already mentioned above.

A Business Requirements Document (BRD) is typically is a massive spreadsheet that documents the requirements the developer and the software chosen will have to satisfy. The Discovery methodology of most reputable e-commerce SIs / agencies will utilize a series of Q and A sessions or workshops to tease out the requirements from the business stakeholders. Some may include exercises that identify personas and use cases which are helpful for sites with a wide range of users.

Consider adding required integrations including those that will connect the e-commerce site to CRM, ESP, and especially core business platforms like ERPs.

3. Include as Much Information About Your IT Stack as Possible

Even if it takes some time with your IT department and your IT vendors include all of the information that is possible about your IT stack including, if possible, a logical architecture diagram of all the systems that might connect with or that currently operate around the e-commerce website or app. Vendors will touch on these topics in discovery work but the devil is in the details so the more they know in advance the better.

The following are some examples of information that would be useful to Merchants during the RFP process:

  • What is current e-commerce platform and version?
  • Where is it hosted or is it SaaS?
  • Do you have an ERP? Which one?
  • If no ERP, what is the accounting system of record? Where is customer and order data stored ?
  • Who is your merchant of record?
  • What payment provider do you use?
  • Who is your email service provider?
  • How are products currently fulfilled and are there any direct integrations with that fulfillment?
  • Do you have any security audit procedures in your company that we must complete prior to engaging or periodically after engagement?

4. Be Transparent About Post Launch Expectations

Discuss your post launch expectations of participants; will you be counting on them for M&S or will you be taking over the ongoing “care and feeding”?
These days, e-commerce merchants are really operating within a large range of staffing frameworks and part of that is because experienced e-commerce staff members are hard to find. Many SI vendors will truly want to understand if there is a long term service opportunity as an exclusive provider of, or as a sole source provider of maintenance and support services. It’s important to understand if you have an internal team that will need to be trained or if you are going to outsource supporting the e-commerce systems or if you just don’t know yet. Learn more about the pros and cons of insourcing vs. outsourcing your maintenance and support, here.

Typically at Accorin we will provide prospective maintenance and support clients with a framework (bronze- silver – gold level support packages) and then work to understand what level of hours of support will be optimal.

5. Be Clear About Timing Requirements

Comprehensive e-commerce projects take months and even after an initial release they are never really “done” just like the businesses that they serve (you always need to evolve to compete, right?). The agencies / SIs competing for your business will be realistic about what they can accomplish if you are honest and up front about your timing requirements, key dates, events, or just management desires that will impact timing.

Often if you have an aggressive product launch, event or campaign date you’re tying to hit, a vendor will work with you to look at options. A phased launch might be something to consider: launch with MVP requirements, and the rest of the requirements can follow at a later date that is more realistic. If you’re not honest initially, it’s unlikely you’ll hit your dates, and less likely that you’ll ultimately have a trusting partner relationship that both parties feel comfortable with.

6. Ask For Rates and a Budget Range

It’s common for merchants to ask for fixed fee bids, but from an agency/SI point of view, these can be challenging. It means that vendors might be forced to bid on the higher end to alleviate the risk of a project becoming unprofitable. Instead, ask for rates and a budget range. If the ‘unknown’ aspect of this approach makes you uncomfortable, ask for an explanation of how costs are controlled/monitored and reported to alleviate the anxiety your accounting team might have. Your account team should report to you frequently throughout a project too, so you should be able to see how the finances are trending against the original budget range.

It’s very rare to find an agency or SI that will submit a fixed bid and be able to stick with it. Why? Actual hours are difficult to predict outside of a “low to high” range. Ask for a low to high range of hours including the estimated hours for each category of work they are proposing as a part of the project.

7. Tell Them About Your Business

Include business background and “e-commerce maturity” insights about your business. Useful information would include:

  • How long have you been an e-commerce merchant?
  • How experienced is your team?
  • How large is your team?

Knowing the experience the merchant team has is going to enable the agency to best estimate the time consulting, guiding, and training the merchant team. And you want that estimate to be as close to actual as possible.

The Bottom Line

The RFI/RFP process can be stressful, and that stress is only amplified if you don’t get information that will help inform your decision easily. The tips covered in this article will help to ensure you and the vendors are clear on what to provide initially, how much budget you have to spend, when you want/need to be live by, and how you plan to proceed after the launch.