Selecting a service provider is hard

Monster carrying globe

If selecting a CMS is easy, choosing the right service provider to make that CMS successful can be downright difficult. After all, what exactly is the difference between a digital agency, system integrator, consultancy, or any other unique brand positioning claim made by a service provider?

There are many questions with few clear answers:

  • Do you bring in a service provider to help with the selection process, after you select, or while you are selecting?
  • Will a service provider be too biased if they specialize in a handful of CMS platforms?
  • Do you need an external consultant to the consultants?
  • How much depth does a service provider have in the capabilities beyond technology?
  • How much expertise do you need, and in what areas?
  • Can you rely on your CMS vendor to provide the right shortlist of recommended service providers?
  • Does the service provider work across the broader marketing technology ecosystem? If so, which platforms are important beyond CMS?
  • How large of a service provider do you need?
  • Is your service provider partner equipped to handle the new work and potentially learn a new CMS?
  • How do you really know if a service provider delivers quality work?
  • Where do you need specialized help on CMS vs. a more “full service” partner?

Compounding these challenges is that there’s no common definition of a service provider, no standard way organizations configure agency rosters with overlapping skill sets, no easy way to get unbiased reference data, and no central clearinghouse of service providers with the information you need to make a selection. Not to mention, a partner that was perfect for an organization just like you (size, industry, platform) may be the exact wrong fit for your needs.

Add it all up, and you can see where sending out an open RFP and hoping for the best starts to look like a path of least resistance.

In the April 24, 2015 Forrester Research, Inc. report:  Market Overview: Digital Experience Delivery Service Providers, 2015 senior analyst Anjali Yakkundi writes:

“Thousands of services providers have popped up, hoping to help firms solve these digital experience delivery challenges, and some are much further along in their digital maturity than others are. These firms come from a multitude of backgrounds: everyone from your systems integrator helping with your SAP implementations to your marketing agency you’ve worked with on direct outreach and paid media.”

In the report, Forrester Research (which caters primarily to the Fortune 1000 set) profiles nearly 50 service providers with “significant digital experience delivery practices” and offers a framework to map vendor experiences and their “distinct DNA” with specific digital experience technologies. (Disclosure: Connective DX is one of the service providers included in the report.)

This mapping is helpful, but still high-level and specific to an enterprise audience. Service providers on the list range from 60,000 employee consultancies to 70-person specialists. And what about the thousands of partners not on that list, many of which could be a good fit?

Digital Clarity Group consults on web content management and customer experience selection, founding the company in 2012 on the principle that they will not help organizations select a technology unless they also help with the selection of the service provider.

Their 2014 Guide to Service Providers for Web Content and Customer Experience Management profiles 47 service providers  (with some overlap, but a lot of different organizations than Forrester) focused on digital experience and technology delivery. (Connective DX is included in this report as well.)

In the report, Digital Clarity Group president Scott Liewehr writes:

“No doubt, software is increasingly necessary for successful customer experience management, and selecting the wrong products can have a crippling effect. But, as we argue in the introduction to this report, more software only means that more emphasis must be placed on finding the right partners to implement and integrate the technologies and to assist with research, analytics, business strategy, and other services for a complete solution.”

Both of these guides are solid starting points for understanding the landscape and getting independent advice on how service providers fit specific needs.

One of the challenges in selecting a service provider at the same time you are selecting a new CMS platform is that, even done in tandem, the CMS selection process can still drive much of the service provider evaluation criteria.

Service providers are well equipped to help frame some of the bigger opportunities (such as customer research and digital strategy) we wrote about in the CMS selection myth, but a joint evaluation process often over emphasizes how service providers’ credentials support a specific CMS platform, as opposed to how strong the service provider is on competencies beyond CMS such as experience design, content strategy and analytics.

Strategic service providers often get boxed into a technology-centric process in a tag-along role that doesn’t allow for the right framing or discussions. How this process is structured matters a lot in selecting the right partner.

An alternative starting point is to ask the CMS vendor who they recommend as a partner. This can be helpful too, after all who knows the partner community better than the software vendors themselves? However, proceed with caution: Every partner handles this process differently, with mixed results.

The CMS vendor (often a salesperson) may not fully understand all of the partner capabilities beyond the technology. They also may feel inclined to send the opportunity to the partners who have recently referred them opportunities (you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours).

Every CMS vendor uses different criteria for tiering partners and assessing quality. The top service providers listed on a CMS vendor’s site are often the ones that bring in the most licensed revenue, but they may not be the right fit for your needs.

This is all a very long way of saying, “It’s complicated.”

It’s genuinely a muddy landscape to navigate, and a difficult decision to make. It’s no wonder that many of our clients get referred in from other customers we work with. Turning to peers you trust, and talking to references early, is often the most reliable starting point for finding out which service providers may be worth working with.

It’s confusing on our side, too. As a service provider that gets many inbound inquires for content management-driven work, we are often shortlisted alongside partners who are very different in size, capabilities and culture. In those cases, there’s always a feeling that one of us isn’t a good fit, but it’s not always clear who it is.

We have very specific qualification criteria on the types of organizations that we work with successfully, and the type of work we want to be doing. We love to have these early conversations and typically find that about 10-15% of the organizations that reach out to us are a good fit to take the next steps. For the ones that aren’t, we’re always happy to refer them to partners we trust, as well as share our perspective on the service provider landscape.

While this process can be hard, finding the right service provider pays off big time. Most battle-tested digital veterans agree that success of your digital initiatives is much more dependent on your partners and internal teams than on the software you end up selecting.

What have your experiences been finding the right service provider? What advice would you share with others just starting the process?

About the Author
Jeff Cram

Jeff Cram is Chief Strategy Officer and co-founder of Connective DX (formerly ISITE Design), a digital agency based in Portland, OR and Boston, MA. As the Managing Editor of the CMS Myth, Jeff is passionate about all topics related to content management, digital strategy and experience design.

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