How to transition off an agency engagement

Agencies frequently say their process is an inextricable part of the service they offer. We know this to be true, but one process rarely discussed is how they actually hand off their work.

During initial conversations, clients typically ask thoughtful questions around the onboarding process, cycles of work, tools and technology used, etc., but never questions around the offboarding process, or what to expect as the project approaches completion.

They should, though. Kicking off a project with no transition plan can turn into a huge hidden cost. This is how clients find themselves caught in never-ending engagements, where they are basically bank rolling an agency to drag their heels on delivering what they’ve promised. You’d be surprised how often this happens. It’s an extremely easy trap to fall into and a difficult hole to dig out of, no matter how experienced, organized, or diligent you are. 

An efficient transition from an agency to your team will depend on a variety of factors, including the size and capabilities of your team, your larger product roadmap, your budgetary constraints, and more. We share two models below that capture the majority of scenarios.

The clean break

On straightforward projects with clearly defined deliverables (like a new marketing site, for example), it’s more realistic to expect a quick, uncomplicated parting of ways. This process will still happen gracefully, such as over a week or a month, but from a high-level view, the handoff will occur at a distinct point or period of time.

For this approach to go smoothly, the two teams need to work in tandem throughout the entire project:

  • From the kick-off, both teams need to understand and acknowledge that a formal pass-off is the ultimate goal. A successful engagement means ending the relationship.
  • Both teams should then work together to establish a project timeline up front with clearly defined check-in points, handoff requirements, and deadlines.
  • The client has identified who will become the internal owner of the project. Ideally, this person or team is involved from start to finish and has context on the decisions and tradeoffs made throughout the project.

The gradual handoff

Complex projects with shifting objectives and requirements (admit it) almost always call for a gradual transition. This will usually include multiple stages, where portions of the work are incrementally passed from the agency to the in-house team. 

A gradual transition might look something like this:

  • From the beginning, an internal champion is tapped to remain engaged throughout the project, ensuring your team is aware of and understands all major context and decisions being made.
  • The agency team first focuses on executing the most critical areas in the SOW without having to slow down to handle time-consuming housekeeping or documentation efforts.
  • Internal team members are identified or hired before the project is over, ideally 2-4 weeks prior to delivery date, so they can progressively take over ownership. A (good) agency team can even help interview and evaluate skill fit for your particular technology.
  • Non-critical agency team members will roll off the project once the initial bulk of work is completed.
  • While onboarding internal team members, areas where more documentation is needed will become evident, which the agency team will then clean up.
  • As the last of the work is handed over, you might keep the agency on a small monthly retainer to help with questions, training, guidance, or other needs that comes up.

Gradual transitions like this give your team time to learn the ins and outs of the technology or assets delivered. 

If you don’t bake in time for knowledge transfer, the agency engineers and designers who led your project are likely to shift their focus to another client full-time, making it harder–and maybe even impossible–for them to jump back into your workflow.

Tradeoffs are inevitably made in software decisions. Having the team that built your product available to advise on where the technical debt lives, or what gaps exist, or where further integrations are needed, will save your team hours of additional work.

Another thing to consider is the longtail of work needed. Software is never finished. This includes scheduled work, such as the rollout of additional features after the launch of your MVP, as well as emergent work, or new requirements that have presented themselves over the course of the project. In either case, it’s easier and faster to tackle follow-ups with the team that has built the product up to this point rather than getting new team members up to speed.

Final thoughts

Whether you choose to transition off your agency engagement gradually or not, the handoff will still require careful planning. A half-baked transition plan can leave you with software that will eventually break, with nobody who has the knowledge to fix it. 

We have several horror stories where the client team waited too long to hire internally. Or they hired someone without the necessary technical skills or experience to keep the project moving forward. In some worst-case scenarios, we’ve stepped in to help teams who scrapped months worth of work, just to rebuild their product entirely because they weren’t bought into the strategy or were never brought up to speed by their original agency team.

And the most common situation we see when clients delay having the “breakup” talk? They end up in seemingly infinite engagements with agencies who were happy to take their money for months on end, all while paying lip service to deliverables that just never seemed to materialize. Nobody wants to be that client, especially in this economic climate.

Ask a few pointed questions regarding transition plans at the beginning of an agency engagement to avoid this trap entirely.