Have you ever met anyone who didn’t want to be successful or a business who wasn’t out to make money? Neither have I. There are many ways of doing both, most of them lacking on the ethical side and sometimes even on the legal side.

As someone looking to hire an agency or a freelancer to build or market your e-commerce shop, you’ll be faced with the one thing everyone wants, but quickly becomes overwhelmed by – choices. This means that to get to the people who can actually be useful, you’ll have to sift through piles of nonsense. That’s right, nonsense. Most of it is sales bullsh*t people who just want to reel you in say, some of whom just don’t know any better and some of whom are simply looking to get your money. Here are a few ways you can tell the difference.


We guarantee

This is a term that’s been used to death and beyond. You’ll find it in phrases like “guaranteed x increase in sales”, “guaranteed y % ROI”, “guaranteed z number of conversions” or “guaranteed on-time delivery”. When it comes to web design and development, a project is behind schedule the second you’ve started working on it, not because anyone has been dragging their heels but because we work on estimates. Yes, we ballpark it. While the basic principles stay the same, custom work is inherently unique, which means we can’t know for sure how long it’s going to take.

In other words, while your bells and whistles are made of the same material we’ve used before and may even work in a way we’ve done before, that particular combination is unique and therefore we can’t guarantee it’ll take us x amount of time to make it. But by far the biggest lies in the industry pertain to guaranteeing certain figures when it comes to sales, conversions or ROI. There are so many factors that influence user behavior that to pretend you’ve got it down to being able to know exactly how many conversions you’ll be able to achieve is simply insane.

So what do honest people, who actually know what they’re doing, say? Someone who’s not just out to make a buck at your expense will use phrases like “our goal is to increase your number of conversions to x in the next z months” or “our first milestone is achieving a y % ROI”. Similarly, an honest manager will tell you they work based on estimates and will give you an approximate number of hours required to complete the project, informing you which feature they think might be more problematic or depend on others, such as hosting companies or payment processors.

Full-service agency

This is a tough one, because some companies really do offer the high-quality services listed on their websites. And…then there are the ones that don’t. Agencies like to pride themselves with the qualified people they have on their team and will list them on their websites. If not, LinkedIn is generally a great way to see the number of employees and their qualifications.

Why is this important? Because a company that offers web development, web design, online marketing, content writing, branding, data research and whatever else they can think of and have a grand total of 3 people working for them is either listing services for the sake of getting some business, any business, or isn’t interested in hiring the qualified people required for each position. We all know there’s a recession but that really doesn’t mean some poor schmuck has to suddenly become Jack of all Trades.

An actual full-service agency has project managers, art directors, web designers, front-end developers, programmers, marketing specialists and content writers. Yes, that means at least one of each.

That one website to rule them all

Every single agency and freelancer has a website, otherwise clients would never find them. A good indicator of how your project will turn out is not the techno-babble so frequently splurged on it but what it looks and feels like. Of course, a presentation website might not be what you’re looking for and a web agency’s website will most certainly not follow the same guidelines as your own website, as they have very different goals.

However, there are a few very basic questions the answer to which can determine that you’ve found the right person for the job.

  • Did you understand what the website is about right away?
  • Were there any obvious bugs on it?
  • Did you find it easy to navigate through?
  • Was finding what you were looking for easy enough?
  • Was it a pleasant experience or did you want to just leave the website altogether?
  • While not as important as the “calling card” itself, the content featured on the website can reveal important clues about who you’re dealing with. Reading phrases that are stiff and don’t really seem to have been written for human beings is a good indicator they were focused more on search engines than you. By far one of the biggest issues is stealing. You can be certain that descriptions that read littered with cliches have some measure of inspiration drawn from similarly “default” sounding websites. And since creativity is one of the things you’re looking for, you’d better skip on this kind of a team.

Stealing images, logos or trademarks is another practice that should prompt you to stay away from an agency or freelancer. Although copyright infringement is rarely a problem with medium or large agencies, smaller ones tend to think abiding by someones legal right over an image is optional, at best. It’s tough to tell if someone’s paid for a photo they’re using, however, if you see something iconic like a photo of Freddy Mercury, Disney character or a Lego used to showcase a brand other than the one it originates from, it’s a good bet they’re using it without proper approval.

The itsy-bitsy folio

Portfolios are an important component in deciding to hire someone but often they are given much more credit than they are due. A large or small portfolio shows that a particular business has had x number of clients, with a broader or narrower range of projects.

While a big portfolio gives the impression of competence, it’s hardly a guarantee of it. All it does is list a number of projects completed to varying degrees of satisfaction and even more uncertain degrees of future success for the businesses they were built for.

A company that has 10 employees and has completed 150 projects in the last 12 months probably isn’t very big on details, while one that has just 3 could simply have not deemed some of them important enough to be listed in their portfolios. Yes, the harsh truth is that a self-respecting business will try to include either projects that give them the opportunity to name-drop or that have brought some measure of innovation to the industry; you know, like any sensible business would.

Test the testimonies

Testimonials were what product manufacturers, businesses and diet pills binged on….in the ‘90s. The world has since become savvier and anyone with the most basic digital skills can see right through them as being nothing more than sales gimmicks, the author of which isn’t the gorgeous lady who’s 20 years younger thanks to that miracle cream but rather a poor sap employed to deliver believable-sounding reviews hand-over-fist.

A web agency, of all people, should understand the value of testimonials in 2014, or lack thereof. True recommendations aren’t written by a generic Bob, CEO of Devil May Care, Inc. but are posted on reputable websites, like LinkedIn, and are associated with genuine accounts that include verifiable credentials.


The Bottom Line

The above are just a few of the most obvious in the long line of online sales ploys you’re likely to come across when looking for a reliable business partner. Don’t be afraid to move on from that “big agency” with a huge portfolio and polished taglines if you feel they’re disingenuous. Likewise, don’t give up on the small guys just because they focus on quality rather than quantity and don’t have a problem with calling you out on any mistakes; after all, you want someone who is better at their job than you are.

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