14 Questions eCommerce Agencies should ask their clients

Ecommerce sites are challenging projects for an agency to work on, even for experienced teams. Traditional websites are static online signposts that are occasionally updated, while webstores are living, breathing commercial spaces where money changes hands and product moves across the world.

When a customer approaches you to build their ecommerce site, you can’t afford to make assumptions. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first webstore or your fiftieth; you need to gather and confirm as much relevant information about the project as possible before you hand it off to your development team. This information will affect how the site is structured, how long the project will take, and how much resources you need to pour into the webstore’s construction.

Ask these critical questions at the onset of every project:

1. What will you be selling?

This simple question opens up a can of worms’ worth of follow-up questions:

Is the client going to be selling products or services? Are they selling a single product or a range of different products? Do those products have different versions/styles per SKU? How many total SKUs will be in the client’s online inventory? How often do they roll out new products?

If it’s a service, is it paid per hour or a flat fee? Are the client’s customers going to be quoted on request or is the price listed?

The answers to these questions will affect your approach to building the site. It’ll affect the layout, the webstore construction, webstore platform extensions, and more. Be thorough and make sure the customer leaves nothing out. Surprises delay the project and cost more money on both sides.

2. Is the website pure ecommerce or multipurpose?

Some clients like to hit two birds with one stone and have one website that does everything: corporate identity, customer service, and online store. Others would rather keep have the site stay purely ecommerce. You need to establish that right away so that you know how the site will be constructed and the best way to approach site navigation, SEO, and more.

3. Do you have specific ecommerce platforms in mind?

Some clients will have already done their research and have a platform preference. Others will have heard one or two big names that they want to use, just because that’s all they know. And then you have those who wave the question off and say “it doesn’t matter.”

Beware! It matters a lot, and you know it. Analyze everything you’ve been told in the other questions on this list and use it to assess which platform would be the right fit. Be ready to justify your recommendation if the client isn’t technically savvy or is resisting.

4. Who will manage and update the ecommerce site?

The answer to this question can go one of two ways, each of which has its own pros and cons.

First, if the client requests you handle the webstore’s maintenance and upkeep, that means a good source of regular income for you, since the client will have to pay a monthly maintenance fee. But if the client has you updating the site on a regular basis (and has a bad attitude to boot), then the usual monthly retainer might not be sufficient.

If they decide to do their own updates, you may have to spend a significant amount of time building documentation for them to use. Expect calls from the customer asking for support, and customers conveniently “forgetting” that they haven’t paid for your time and expertise post-project.

5. Where will you host your website?

This question is very similar to the one posed above. It’s a matter of determining who will take responsibility for the site. If a client decides to host it themselves, find out if they have the infrastructure and expertise necessary to keep the webstore running, as well as the security measures in place required to keep customer data secure from hackers. If they don’t have any of those right now, warn them of the risks and provide them with options to pursue.

Managed hosting platforms are the best option for most situations, as these allow you to enjoy security,scalability,reliability, and remote support at a relatively low cost. Also, having a managed host means the developers only have to worry about putting the ecommerce site together, and not have to deal with all of the other hardware- or manpower-related details.

6. Do you already have product photos?

Product photos can mean the difference between a thriving webstore and a deserted wasteland. They catch the visitor’s attention and entice them to explore the product further and eventually purchase. Yet this is one area of the business that is frequently ignored or taken for granted.

Newly established or small businesses might not have product photos for you to use, instead relying on browsing physical stores or someone else’s image of the product. But even if the client does have their own product photos, how good are they? Most businesses don’t have the eye or the equipment necessary for product photography. They take snapshots on their phone and assume it’s good enough to put on their webstore.

Rescue them from their mistake and take up the responsibility (for a fee, of course). If you don’t have a product photographer on your own team, bring in a freelancer you trust and give them the freedom to do their jobs. Your job at that point is to keep the client from micromanaging the process and “directing” the photographer.

7. What payment method will you use?

Will the client accept all major credit cards, or an online payment gateway like Paypal? Certain ecommerce platforms allow you to integrate with Paypal for free, while others require a premium.

Also, would the client rather keep their customers within the site as they pay or are they comfortable taking the customer to another payment page offsite? It is a much smoother user experience to keep customers on the page, but that involves more work and may increase project time/costs.

The client also needs to decide whether they will accept multiple currencies or a single currency. If they do accept multiple currencies, how will the site determine which one to use? Via IP identification or can the customer manually select a country of origin (and therefore change the currency)?

8. How will you ship your product?

Shipping is one of the trickiest parts of any ecommerce project, and one of the items your agency should clarify first.

First order of business is determining whether or not the client will be charging for shipping at all. Some webstores offer free shipping after a specific amount or dollar value has been purchased. Others incorporate the shipping cost into the price of the product or charge a flat universal fee so that the customer doesn’t have to worry about calculations.

Yet more businesses integrate the ecommerce store directly with a single carrier such as the USPS or Canada Post. This allows the customer to get live and accurate shipping rates appropriate to the size of the package and the buyer’s location.

Agencies should also determine if shipping the product involves special conditions. Should shipments be ordered a day or more in advance, for instance? Are the items perishable (i.e. food)? Are customers restricted to local shipping instead of global? Are your products not available to be shipped to certain countries? How will the site determine if any of these conditions are or are not met?

9. What tax rules do we need to take into account?

Most ecommerce stores charge tax based on the country or area in which the business owner resides, if they charge tax at all.

This is wrong. Tax should be charged based on where the product is being delivered. However, this introduces complicated tax tables and logistical issues. Review the tax rules with the client so that they know what their legal obligations are, and how to best set up the webstore to be compliant.

10. Does the ecommerce store need to integrate with other systems?

These days a store isn’t simply a store. Ecommerce stores are now platforms by which a savvy entrepreneur can connect to other parts of his business.

Find out if your client wants the webstore to connect to any of his other platforms or software tools like Quickbooks, marketing automation solutions, inventory systems, or even social media accounts. This can be accomplished through the use of API, webstore extensions, or even custom-coded from the ground up.

Knowing about these requirements now makes implementation easier and smoother than if they threw it in after everything was done.

11. How are fulfillment notifications handled?

Most major ecommerce platforms already generate fulfillment notifications such as order receipts and shipping confirmations. Ask the client if they want these email notifications customized to match their branding, or if they want to bolster the process with more communications such as email reminders for abandoned shopping carts.

Don’t forget internal notifications, either. Ask the client what they need in terms of email alerts and reminders, If they need to review a list of pending orders or shipping labels that need to be printed, incorporate that into the project requirements along how they intend to access the data.

12. Is your site going to be multilingual?

Website translation isn’t as simple as throwing a product description into Google Translate and copy-pasting the result. Translating ecommerce sites is a large endeavor and might have to be handled as a separate project depending on the size of the original site and number of languages required.

Each page will have to have its layout reoptimized to account for the new text, and any image-based copy will have to be redone in every variety of the new language. Page metadata and URLs will have to be adjusted as well so that the store shows up properly in whatever supported language the visitor uses. Even the product names will have to be reviewed to see if translations are necessary.

Multiply that by ten languages, and you’ve got a lot of work to do.

13. Do you have any old data you want us to bring into the new site?

If this is not the client’s first ecommerce store, they may want to migrate old data from previous sites. This is not a simple or easy process. Ecommerce sites have a lot of data in terms of product names, SKU numbers, price details, descriptions, images, tags, and more. There’s also the added wrinkle of ensuring the data from the old platform is compatible with the new one.

Set expectations as to how much effort is involved in migration and how long the process will take. Be as transparent as possible during the migration process so that the client feels in control–or, at the very least, involved.

14. What is your budget?

Ah, the trickiest question of them all. Clients ask you to quote an ecommerce site before you had a chance to ask any of the above questions, which leads to you drastically under-quoting the required work.

If you can, defer the budget question to after you’ve asked all the other questions on this list. Once all of the details are in place, and the client has a better idea of what they’re asking you to do, ask them to share their budget in the broadest terms possible. Ask for a ballpark figure of their budget, to keep them from feeling pinned down. You can also try asking the client to bracket the numbers. For example, “I expect to spend from $3,000 – $5,000 for this project.” This gives the both of you room to negotiate.

Once those numbers are out there, then the real discussion can begin!

In conclusion

Even the simplest webstore requires you to do your due diligence and get the right answers from the client. If you skip this process or do it haphazardly, you risk creating a webstore that doesn’t function as per the client’s business requirements, or doesn’t function properly at all.

Make these questions a standard part of every project kickoff meeting. Email in well in advance so the client has time to prepare their answers, and practice active listening when you interview the client so that nothing is missed.