Red Flags to Avoid When Vetting a Digital Agency

“93 percent of communication is nonverbal.”

Ever heard this statistic? It’s a number that is often thrown around — and just as often debated. It comes from a famed 1972 study by psychologist Albert Mehrabian, who conducted multiple studies that concluded human communication is divided as follows:

  • Words: 7 percent
  • Tone of voice: 38 percent
  • Body language: 55 percent

Add tone of voice and body language together, and we come up with 93 percent nonverbal communication.

What does nonverbal communication have to do with vetting digital agencies?

When you’re vetting a digital agency and asking them questions, you can’t just listen to the words. You have to keep both your eyes and ears open, because there is more being communicated nonverbally than there is verbally. An agency could provide all the “right answers,” but you could still wind up regretting the decision to work with them because you weren’t paying attention to nonverbal signals that might have tipped you off. Ignoring these signals could lead you to miss an important red flag.

5 Digital Agency Red Flags

Recognizing and avoiding red flags is the key to protecting yourself against a bad deal, or at least a bad experience. Not every red flag is an automatic deal breaker, but it should at least prompt you to dig a bit deeper and ask some more questions. If the agency can’t satisfy your concerns regarding the red flag, it’s time to walk away.

In my experience, there are a few red flags that many people sail by when interviewing prospective agencies. Below you’ll find a few bright-red flags you shouldn’t ignore. If the phrase caveat emptor (“buyer beware”) ever would apply, it’d be now.

Red Flag #1: Vague Answers

When you ask a question about the project, the agency should be able to give a clear, detailed answer.

For example, one of the most basic questions a digital agency should be able to answer is “If my website goes down, what happens? Who do I call or email? How long before I can expect a response?”

If you ask this question, the digital agency should be able to respond with something specific like, “Bill is our tech-support guy; you can email him at [email protected] and he’ll respond within 24 hours.” Or “You’ll have 24/7/365 tech support at 1-800-XXX-XXXX.” A specific answer like the one above is a good sign that the agency is on their game.

But let’s suppose the agency responds with “Well, you shouldn’t have any trouble, but if you do, call our office and we’ll figure it out for you.” That answer might sound reassuring, but it tells you absolutely nothing — it doesn’t offer any solutions in the event your website goes down.

If the digital agency can’t give you a clear, concise answer to this simple question, make a note of it and keep listening. If you continue to receive vague answers like this in response to other questions you ask, you’ve got a clear red flag.

Red Flag #2: The Pebble in Your Shoe

When you’re vetting a digital agency, you’re effectively interviewing them for a job. So you need to act as if you were hiring an employee to join your staff. The interview questions might be a bit different, but the process is about the same. In a job interview, you’re not just checking the candidate’s qualifications, you’re also feeling out the employee to see whether they would be a good fit for your team. The same goes for a digital agency you’re thinking about hiring.

If the behavior exhibited by the agency rubs you the wrong way during the initial interview, you’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.

Hiker with hiking boots overlooking valley.
Nothing worse than a pebble in your shoe while hiking — the same applies for a client/agency relationship.

As the founder and president of a digital agency, I’ve interviewed and hired many people over the years. Some of those interviewees were bright, engaged, and dressed the part, and these folks have been great assets to my team. I’ve also had candidates who wouldn’t look me in the eye, laughed way too loudly, or reeked of a cologne that could fend off attackers. I’ve learned by experience that if something about the candidate rubs me the wrong way during the interview, that trend is likely to continue and get worse if I hire that person. In other words, while I try to be as open as possible, I’ve also learned not to ignore the little indicators that could detract from our office environment.

The same applies to any digital agency you are considering. If the behavior exhibited by the agency rubs you the wrong way during the initial interview, you’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg. It’s like feeling a pebble in your shoe. It only bothers you a little at first, but if you don’t take off your shoe and remove the pebble, it’s going to feel excruciating after about a half mile of walking. If something annoys you or makes you uncomfortable at the beginning, you’ll be even more uncomfortable the longer you let it go.

Red Flag #3: Nonreferences

Most digital agencies will have a curated list of references, and if you call them, they’ll likely have great things to say — otherwise, the agency wouldn’t have them on the list. But if you really want to dig deeper, find some companies they’ve worked with who aren’t on that list. You can often find these through backlinks, mutual acquaintances, or even the sample websites the digital agency has provided for you. Call some of these companies and ask about their experience with the agency. If they left, find out why. If they are still with the agency but not on the list, you might find out what the unfiltered story is.

Now, while your hope is obviously to hear nothing negative about the agency, in the interest of fairness, a negative review shouldn’t be a deal breaker in itself. There are many reasons why businesses make and break alliances, and there are also two sides to every story. If you do hear something negative, remember to take it with a grain of salt, and use your own best judgment. However, if you hear a significant number of horror stories from this uncurated list of nonreferences, or if several of them have the same complaint about the company, there’s a pattern of broken relationships, and that’s a red flag that you should not ignore.

Red Flag #4: Your Gut Tells You No

Suppose the digital agency you’re considering is a referral from a trusted friend. This friend of yours works with the agency, loves them, and swears by them.

However, after talking with the agency, you figure out that your friend’s referral is the only positive thing they have going for them — nothing else jives. They give vague answers, their contractual agreement is one page long and says almost nothing, and the non-references you find aren’t giving them good reports. In fact, if it weren’t for your friend’s strong referral, you wouldn’t even be considering this company at this point. You feel like you’re being biased and unfair. Is your friend seeing something in this company that you don’t see?

What Does Your Gut Tell You?
Or in the immortal words of The Clash, “Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?”

No. Actually, the opposite is probably true: you’re seeing something your friend isn’t seeing. Your friend is saying yes, but your gut is telling you no. Always go with your gut.

This holds true even if you don’t find overwhelming evidence that contradicts your friend’s recommendation. You don’t owe it to your friend or anyone else to enter a working relationship that you feel could harm your business. If you can’t get comfortable with the agency, no matter how subjective that feeling is, there’s no harm or foul in walking away. But let’s also be clear: if all other signals except for your friend’s recommendation are pointing in the opposite direction, you shouldn’t walk away. You should run.

Trusting your gut is far from scientific, but not every business decision you make has to be. You always have the right to say no.

Red Flag #5: An Ambiguous Cancellation Policy

Every relationship ends at some point — including ones of a business nature. If you’re working with a digital agency, you need to make sure they offer a clear cancellation policy within the contract you sign.

If a digital agency fumbles when you ask the question “what’s your cancellation policy?” or responds with something like “Oh, why talk about leaving when we’ve barely begun?” — that’s a huge red flag. It means they don’t really have a plan for when you decide to say goodbye — which will guarantee a mess when you inevitably do part ways.

Learn more about why your cancellation policy is the most important part of your contract with a digital agency.


Have additional questions about vetting a digital agency?

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