These are familiar words for us at Redweb, as I am sure they are to every other digital agency working to engage with new clients. It can often be worded differently, but the meaning remains the same – “we require the solution to be integrated with one or more third-party systems we use and want an agency with prior experience of delivering solutions that integrate with these platforms”.
After all, an agency with that experience is going to know what’s involved to achieve the integration and will understand the likely problems, providing a client with real experienced-based costs and timescales for the work. Aren’t they?
And surely working with an agency with that kind of experience will mean less risk of delays, fewer problems and no budget overrun for the client, unlike an agency that hasn’t integrated with that platform previously? If only it were that simple!
All agencies do integration
One thing is certain; “relevant integration experience” is absolutely essential for the successful delivery of the project and the successful management of risks, budget and timescales, however the meaning of that phrase isn’t as straightforward as clients (and sometimes agencies) think!
Integration is implicit in the web paradigm and all agencies carry out integration all of the time, with the simplest form being a website transmitting data via a third-party component to a web browser. Of course, what clients and agencies usually focus on for integration work are the third-party systems that form part of the core application.
These can include (but are not limited to):
- CRM systems
- Payment gateways
- Digital asset and document management systems
- Calendars and event booking systems
- Digital marketing systems (e.g. for personalisation, automation, email marketing and analytics)
- Search engines
The problem that we, as agencies, face is that within all of the areas listed above (and the many others not listed) there are so many products and systems in the market that any agency is only going to ever gain direct experience of working with a handful.
This can create a problem when responding to client tenders. Most clients ask for “relevant integration experience” with their chosen systems and they are often universally clear in what they are expecting – prior experience in delivering a solution that integrates with their systems proven through 1-3 recent case studies. Sadly, what clients often fail to appreciate is that this is only one dimension to consider when choosing a delivery partner and, in our experience, through the many integration projects we have undertaken, it is rarely on the critical path for ensuring success.
System integration is hard. It is perhaps, the most complex, risky and often expensive element of any project. The important thing to remember though is that 99% of the time this complexity, cost and risk is not due to the mechanics of integrating two systems. Most systems have APIs and technical documentation; there are often training courses available, either with the vendor or via third-party, and in many cases, there are examples or prior-art integration to use. As an agency working with a new platform there is certainly a need to get up to speed quickly and efficiently but writing the code to get a website talking to a CRM, for example, is not what causes problems.
So, what is? Here are a few examples:
Understanding the data model
A lot of back-office systems such as booking engines and CRMs are themselves heavily customised toolkits for the client. They have specific data models to meet the client business needs, can be large and complex, and require a thorough understanding of the client’s business model. Gaining this understanding is one of the most important needs for any successful integration, regardless of which system is hosting the data, but it’s time-consuming and needs support from the client.
Problems associated with concurrent system development can have a large impact on successful integrations. If the client’s back-office system is being developed alongside the website, then delays and additional costs pose a significant risk. Integrating with a system that is still changing and being developed is like trying to hit a moving target. Even if a common API and object model can be agreed at an early stage of the project, the chances are it will change during the build which has a knock-on effect to the website.
Third-party systems can have bugs meaning support from their vendors is important but can sadly be variable! Poor, or in some case, a lack of support from vendors is often a factor in delays in integration work, be it waiting for a response to a support ticket or even a patch/hotfix to correct an issue.
Benefits of experience
It’s impossible to measure an agency on their prior problem solving and integration experience with particular systems as every client, and every project, is different. Even the response from vendors can vary at different times for different projects! Platforms can (and often do) move from a position of stability to flakiness, or back again, at each release. Many problems that could occur however can be anticipated early on in a project through careful process planning and clear communication amongst all parties. Lessons learned from one integration project can benefit others that involve completely different technologies. This is where the true richness of “relevant integration experience” is to be found.
Integration experience – what to look for
If you want to judge an agency on its strength for your integration work, think about enquiring about their approach to or their experience of the following:
- Ensuring data integrity in the overall architecture
- Working in your business domain or a similar domain (to be fair, most clients look for this)
- Ensuring appropriate security and performance in the overall architecture
- Gaining a thorough understanding of your business model, data model and entities, as well as the business processes that use them
- Integration testing
- Handling specific constraints and cross-cutting concerns (e.g. usability, latency)
- How they will support you in any certification and sign-off processes that may be required
- How they will guide and manage you in your responsibilities to support the agency in successful delivery (e.g. timely provision of resources, information, and test environments)
Choosing an agency simply on previous relevant experience won’t always present you with the best agency to deliver your requirements. We have vast experience of integration projects, which may or may not include the system you plan to use. Either way, you should talk to us.