How to find the perfect eCommerce Website Builder

They say buying a house and buying a car are the most stressful experiences of anyone’s life. This surely only relates to people who aren’t responsible for building an eCommerce website.
Over the last few months I’ve managed the tendering process for some friends of mine. (Yes they did hire me to do it, and no you can’t hire me to do it! One a year is more than enough for any girl. But luckily for you I’m sharing my top tips below…).

Surprisingly enough I followed the plan I outline in Chapter 4 of eCommerce MasterPlan 1.8: Your 3 Steps to Selling Online, so whist that remains your first port of call – this blog should give you some nice extra tips to reduce the stress factor, the time factor, and help you find the best partner for your business.

Who do you put on the tender list?

The tender list is the list of people you’re going to send your brief to. And there’s a set of methods I recommend you use to populate the “long list”, this is everyone you can think of!

Creating the “long list”

  • Your existing provider – it’s only polite to include them
  • Ask anyone important you integrate with (eg your order processing software system) who they recommend. Integration with back end systems is both the biggest risk and the biggest expense – so if they can recommend some businesses who’ve already done it well – then that’s a big step forward. (this actually gave us our winner in my recent project)
  • Ask your customers – tweet, Facebook, email your customers that you’re looking for someone to build you a new site. You never know which fantastic eCommerce site builder has been buying from you for a while and just WISHING they could help
  • Putting it out on social media will also help you find companies who are savvy and hungry – as they’ll recommend themselves
  • Ask your suppliers in the eCommerce fields for recommendations, or to tweet it out on your behalf.
  • Ask your eCommerce business owner friends for recommendations

Reducing it to the “short list”

You want to get it down to 6-10 that you’re going to ask to tender. Aim for 6 because it’s going to take you a good hour or so to evaluate each proposal that comes in to you.

Work out which criteria are the most important to you – you’re looking for things that have a Y/N answer, the list might look like:

  • Can integrate with XX (back end, email system etc)
  • Design skills
  • Experience in our sector
  • Location
  • Software platform used (magento, bespoke etc)

Think about what are the do or die requirements for you.

Then look at each one’s website / social media etc to answer this.

At this point DO NOT contact them – be respectful of their time.

Anyone who gets a “no” is off the list. Then go through those who are left, and pick your favourite 6. (you might want to hold onto a reserve list in case any of the 6 don’t want the job).

Writing and Sending out the Brief

Make it detailed.

I can’t emphasize that enough. The more detail you put in the easier it’s going to be for you later on. The recent project I worked on had an 18 page brief.

Reasons to make it detailed:

  • Saves you time at the selection point – they know what you want, and can price accurately, so it’s very easy for you to compare them
  • Saves you time and money during the build – surprises = expense and delay
  • A good exercise to make sure everyone on your team agrees on what is required!
  • The website builders will appreciate it! And if they like you, they’ll build you a better site. We tendered 6 companies and three of them thanked us for the quality of the brief.

Some things to include:

  • When you expect their response – give them at least 2 weeks, ideally 3.
  • Who’s going to be involved in the build – outside agencies? PPC, SEO etc?
  • What integrations you require – including Email, Live chat, Reviews, All the Google stuff, Business critical ones – your order management system and merchant account
  • Who’s doing the design?
  • Wireframes (if you want)
  • What is your selection process?
  • Your proposals are due by X
  • We need the price and timescales broken down as per _____
  • We do not expect a design treatment with the proposal, but will expect something if you make through to stage 2
  • We will be deciding who’s made it to stage to week beginning _____
  • Stage 2 will be a 3 hour meeting with us at ________, hopefully week beginning _______, and will are aiming to make the final decision the following week.

This last set of information may seem like overkill – but it shows you are serious and gives them an idea of where you’d want to be fitting into their work schedules – which may just help out with pricing and timescales…

Email the brief out to each of them.

I usually include the selection process information in the email as well as in the brief itself.


Whilst waiting on responses

Two key rules during this time:

1. Be fair

  • If anyone asks for a meeting – refuse them. It’s not fair on the others if one gets a meeting and the rest don’t.
  • They will all come back with qs – send the additional info to everyone. To make this process easier I tend to batch it, emailing twice a week with ALL answers in one go.

2. Wait until you have all the proposals back before reading any of them.

  • Makes it easier to compare them if you look at all of them with fresh eyes
  • Saves you time! A lot of time

Picking who gets to meet with you

Fairly evaluate each proposal and whittle it down to 4 (or 5 if you must).

Remember that no one’s been able to meet with you yet –so ignore rough edges on pricing, and minor misunderstandings.

And be aware that different companies invest different amounts of time in their proposals. Don’t penalise someone who’s provided everything you asked for against someone who’s gone overboard. If they’re going overboard on every proposal then will they ever have time to build your website?

You’ll probably want someone else’s opinion at this point in time!

And try and pick a range of different businesses. I always try to bring in a scarily cheap one and a scarily expensive one – one of them might be the only one who actually understood the brief!!

Emailing the unsuccessful

Please please please do email them. To a sales person a no is as good a yes sometimes – because you get to cross it off the list. Plus, it’s only polite!

Emailing the successful.

When you email the successful give them the options for your meeting slots. Allow 3 hours per meeting and have all of them in the same week. Ideally back to back.

We saw 4 companies in 2 days – 3 hours each. In Cornwall. Whilst one was a Cornish company the others travelled at least 3 hours to get to us.

In the email include the agenda (including key topics you want covered off, and a CMS (content management system) run through. Going through the tenders will have raised some interesting questions for one or more of the tendees, so give them all the full list of what you want to cover), the location, facilities available in the meeting room (flip chart, projector etc), and facilities nearby (coffee shop, where to get lunch, parking – you’re not testing them on this, so help them out with your local knowledge).

And reiterate the last steps of the process – when you need their final proposal by, and when you’ll be making the decision.

At this point I usually offer Google Analytics access too – not least because I want hosting costs.

ecommerce website tender email

Meetings Week

Clear your diary for those 2 days.

You want to keep your head in the game – and it’s going to be a set of intense 3 hour sessions.

Each meeting deserves your full attention.

Prep work

You’ll want these to hand during the meetings:

  • A printed copy of each tender, with your notes
  • A week schedule detailing, who, when – literally name, company name, and time! (you don’t want to accidentally call Jill Jane!)
  • A score sheet for each tendee

The score sheet you should fill in at the end of each meeting – and each person on your side should fill in the score sheet separately. This makes it really easy to remember who was who, and compare them at the end of the week to make your decision.

This is the score sheet we used – put in the criteria that’s critical to your build (probably the same as your points on the agenda)! Don’t just copy my list!!

ecommerce website tender scoresheet

The meetings week will be a rollercoaster. These days everyone you meet will most likely be capable of doing a good job of your site. Try and get excited about everyone. Your job is to work out who you want to work with for the next 3 years.

At the end of each meeting confirm what extra information you need back from them and by when. I recommend you give everyone the chance the re-price (either up or down) based on their greater understanding of the project. And ask for both build cost and ongoing costs – licenses, fees, subscriptions, hosting. As well as timescales.

Once you have the final information from everyone, make your decision. Tell the lucky firm, and those who haven’t been chosen this time. They will probably request feedback – so be ready to provide a few bullet points about why you made your decision.

Running the project this way, including writing the tender document, chatting with the client’s team, and being in every meeting took 32 hours of my time over 9 weeks. And I’d suggest this is as efficient as you can sensibly get it.

Good luck with your website tender project, and if you have any tips please add them below.