10 Tips for Working With Vendors for a Successful Digital Project

If you are a nonprofit manager charged with managing a technology project, what can you do to ensure your project is successful? What steps can you take to ensure that the vendor you partner with is the right one for you?

Many nonprofits seeking to build a technological platform such as a website or learning portal do not have in-house tech expertise. Nonprofits often partner with digital vendors to implement their tech vision.

When the vendor is good, and the relationship between client and vendor is stable and collaborative, the project will be successful. The process from vision to technical and design scope, design to launch will be logical and predictable. It will follow a timeline and a process that will be transparent to everyone. The product launches on budget, on time, and everyone is happy with the result.

Sometimes, there can be a mismatch between client and vendor. Symptoms of a technology project headed south include:

  • Delays.
  • Scope creep.
  • Miscommunication or lack of communication leading to misunderstandings between client and vendor.
  • A chaotic process for decision-making on design and other deliverables.
  • Lack of transparency on tasks and hours billed to the client.
  • Going over budget.
  • Lack of a structured process for quality assurance (QA) testing and remediation.

Here are ten tips on preparation, evaluating proposals, and red flags to watch out for in working with digital vendors:

  1. Seek productive conversations as a starting point.
    Is the digital vendor known to your organization? Have they worked on any projects in the past? Was the collaboration a success? Keep your eyes and ears open for vendors with a track record for your organization. Ask the IT, Communications, Marketing and other departments they have worked with on web and technology projects.
  2. Seek out online communities that can support you,
    Don’t be shy about posting on online message boards about your needs. Describe your organization, project, goals and scope, and vision for a technology product. Responses from digital vendors are an excellent opportunity to learn from technical folks if your vision, scope, and plans have any blind spots. Listen to practical advice from people who have worked with digital vendors. Seek recommendations of vendors they worked with and who has done a good job for them.
  3. Research potential vendors.
    Once you have some recommendations, make a list of six to ten vendors. Go to their websites and LinkedIn pages. Look at projects they have in the showcase section of their website. Do these include work for organizations and projects like yours? Do they include work similar in scope and vision to what you are trying to do?
  4. Is the proposal easy to understand?
    In reading vendor proposals, does the vendor seem to “get” your organization, your project, your project’s scope, and vision? Are they able to articulate this in straightforward language? Communication is vital in complex technology projects. A layperson should be able to communicate with their technology vendor in terms they understand.
  5. Do previous clients and projects resonate with you?
    Are examples of previous client projects similar in scope and resonate with what you are trying to do? For example, if you are trying to launch an online learning management system, does the proposal provide examples of learning management systems?
  6. Contact references.
    Ask references if the vendor has done a good job for them in the past. Ask what type of project and for how long an engagement. How was their experience? Will they recommend or work with them again if given an opportunity?
  7. Ask if employees are full-time or contractors.
    Will key staff working on your project be full-time employees or contractors? Contractors often have multiple clients. Their time, availability, and attention are not 100 percent devoted to the vendor. You may want to partner with a vendor who will staff your project with full-time employees.
  8. How do they handle communications with clients?
    Does the vendor communicate everything by email, or do they use a project management portal? Project management portals allow for a centralized, online location for all communications. They archive and track conversations, record, and lay out milestones and important decisions. Users can upload important files and screenshots. Having a project management portal makes communications more transparent, efficient, and straightforward.
  9. Do you have a dedicated project manager?
    The client should always have a single point of communication with the vendor. The project manager communicates client needs to their team, sets a production schedule and timeline, and ensures the client understands the process and their roles. The project manager should be clear and upfront with the client about expectations for decision-making, turnaround times, and reviewing and evaluating concepts, wireframes, designs and testing, approvals, and signoffs.
  10. How do they handle QA (quality assurance)?
    QA testing finds and resolves bugs and ensures the product works as promised. The vendor should have a ticketing system for the client to enter bugs and errors as they test. The system tracks each ticket from entry to resolution. Communicating everything by email and circulating Word documents or Excel spreadsheets to track errors will get disorganized and chaotic.

To summarize, planning and research at the beginning, careful evaluation of proposals, and ensuring your vendor has a reliable infrastructure of staff, processes, and systems will go a long way to ensure your project will be a success. Doing your due diligence will help avoid common pitfalls when a digital vendor’s capabilities are not a good match for your needs.

 

Before diving into your next technology project, learn how to map your vision to generate clarity and buy-in. Enroll in our one-week course, Leading With Technology Roadmaps.

Redante Asuncion-Reed
Digital Communications Manager
Results for Development

Full-time digital communications manager for a DC-area nonprofit. Freelance writer on the side. I focus on writing about how nonprofit staff use technology and how accidental techies (people in charge of technology without traditional tech backgrounds) manage technical projects successfully.