When you’re planning a new website integration project, you’re likely to have a lot of questions and concerns on your mind. You may be considering what methods to use, what your options are, and how the integration will work. You might be thinking about how your customers and prospects will use your website and what you want them to be able to do there. You’re probably wondering about the length of time and the cost required in order to accomplish your integration goals. You may also be looking at different vendors and considering the best way to go about selecting the right one.
That’s where this article comes in. We think there are some important questions to ask before you get started with a particular vendor, to make sure you’ve found a good match. Ideally, you’ll know the answers to these questions before you commit to a project. Otherwise, you may find that the realities of the project don’t quite measure up to the vision and expectations you had going in.
The answers to the following questions will give you insight into the process and methods a prospective vendor will use, which will help you evaluate the companies you are considering, and their proposed solutions, before you’ve made a commitment to a particular provider. So, without further ado, let’s get started with the first question:
1. How much control do I have over the size of my website, the features it can include and where it will be hosted?
These are important questions to ask when you begin interviewing vendors because the answers will tell you a lot about the vendor’s overall philosophy and approach. In some cases, vendors are offering a “cookie cutter” solution, where a website of a certain size can be built and customized (to an extent) within certain parameters. You may have a selection of integration options to choose from, but there may be features on your “must have” list that are missing. Working with this type of vendor often means you will pay a monthly hosting fee and they will host your website for you. Adding pages beyond the “standard number of pages” may bring additional fees, and you may not be able to implement more cutting-edge features or capabilities (think responsive design and mobile-optimized e-commerce) if the vendor hasn’t yet begun offering those features and capabilities within their platform.
Asking questions about page limits, hosting requirements and fees, design flexibility, and access to the newest web technologies will help you understand how vendors define the boundaries of their solutions and your ability to fit within those boundaries.
2. How do I make changes or add features in the future?
Although the consideration of future changes might feel like something you can afford to put off until later, the time to think about the possibility of adding features to your website, or making changes to the data integration in the future, is actually before you begin your project. It’s definitely a good idea to consider now what these inevitable small adjustments (or major changes) could mean for you later.
Will you be required to engage the vendor every time you need to make a change, no matter how large—or small? Some providers offer solutions that are built on a proprietary, closed platform and hosted by the vendor. You may have the ability to make your own website content changes, but adding new site features or changing the details of the integration may be outside the scope of what you can access yourself. This often means that these kinds of changes must be implemented by that vendor, at a cost to you.
On the other hand, vendors who build solutions using open source software can provide you with a greater degree of flexibility and control. Website integration solutions based on open source software give you the freedom to decide the who, what, where, when and how of your website integration future. If this kind of control is important to you (and you’d prefer not to be locked into a long-term commitment with a particular vendor), you might want to ask potential vendors whether or not they offer open source solutions.
Another question to ask with regard to future changes or additions to your site is whether free or low-cost add-on modules are available. Many of the popular open source e-commerce shopping cart environments—which are often free or low-cost themselves—offer a “marketplace” where free or inexpensive add-on modules for all kinds of features and capabilities can be browsed and selected. These shopping cart environments give you access to a large selection of pre-built, plug-in solutions that can add new functionality to your site in a matter of minutes, without adding big costs or requiring you to initiate a new website development project.
3. How will you manage my project and make sure it is completed on time and within my budget?
It’s a very good idea to ask vendors about their project management process. Website projects have a lot of moving parts and can become complex and unwieldy in a hurry if they aren’t well-managed. We’ve heard horror stories from new clients about projects that literally never ended, and just kept dragging on and on and on… Why does this happen and how can you make sure it doesn’t happen to you?
Ask about their process. If your questions are met with vague responses about staying on top of things or making sure you are always informed about where things stand, you might want to delve deeper and ask for some specifics. How do you stay on top of things? When do you communicate with me and how often can I expect an update? How do you collect the information you need? How are decisions made throughout the process? How many different people will I need to communicate with on your team? How do I know we are all on the same page? Who is my main contact and how easily can I reach them when I have a problem to discuss? And, of course, what happens if the project isn’t completed in the time frame we expected? Will our costs increase if it takes longer than expected to get the project done?
You should expect vendors to have an orderly process they can describe to you. A process that includes a method for identifying your organization’s goals and incorporating them into the project design. Your goals should drive the project, and the project management process should organize the project and move it forward effectively to completion. By asking vendors to describe this process in detail before you commit, you can save yourself, and your company, some major headaches.
4. How much do you know about Sage 100 ERP? (Fill in your ERP, CRM or other applications being integrated.)
This one is a biggie, and can be a source of time-wasting project inefficiencies and sub-par integration capabilities. When you are preparing to engage a vendor to manage the integration of two systems (your website and your business management software, for example), and that vendor is an expert in only one of the systems (the website), a lack of knowledge about the other system (your software) could spell T-R-O-U-B-L-E.
When a website integration vendor doesn’t have expertise with your ERP software, small problems can mushroom out of proportion and use up large amounts of time (and money!) to resolve, due to a lack of familiarity with the way your software is built, how it stores data, how files are updated, where information is found and displayed, etc., etc., etc.
In contrast, consider an integration project that’s managed by a vendor with experts from both system worlds. Ask your vendor what they know about your software. Have they worked with it? Have they developed applications for it? What portion of their experience involves performing integrations with the systems your business relies upon? These are important questions! Ask them now so you know if you’re dealing with an expert in both of the systems you want to integrate, or if you’ll be working with a website integration generalist who might be using educated guesses and doing software research during your project to learn what he or she needs to know.
5. When the integration is up and running, how do I know if it goes down?
While vendors generally don’t like to spend a lot of time talking about errors (and you probably don’t want to think too much about dealing with them), it’s a good idea to plan for the possibility that errors will happen at some point. It’s also useful to know that there’s a good amount of variation from vendor to vendor in terms of how errors are handled.
Ask vendors to describe the error handling and reporting that’s included in their solution. When errors happen, how will you know? If error reporting is included, what kinds of errors are reported? What kinds of errors are not reported? Are error reports written “in English” and easy to understand or do they use error codes that will be meaningless to you? Do you have to be sitting in front of the server in order to be aware of the error, or will the system send a notification to your mobile device? Finally, what options will you have when you do see an error?
Error reporting and notification is particularly important when you’re integrating data with your website, since website visitors could be accessing your system at any time of the day or night. Make sure to ask vendors about the experience your site visitor will have if the integration results in an error or the connection to your site goes down. Can their order still be received and processed or will they be unable to complete their transaction? Taking the time now to inquire about error reporting will help you understand what this critical aspect of each vendor’s solution could mean to your customers and their perception of your business.
What other questions should be in this list?
We hope you’ve found this list to be informative and helpful. And now it’s your turn: what did we miss? Please leave a comment with any additional questions you think should be asked before committing to a website integration project. Thanks for reading!