‘In the Ring’ Podcast: Melissa Curra from SUMO Heavy – Why All Discoveries Are Not Created Equal

John Suder
Apr 5, 2021

This is an edited and abridged transcript from our ‘In the Ring’ podcast series about discovery.

For the next six weeks, we’ll be sitting down and talking with Melissa Curra, SUMO Heavy’s Director of Strategy to break down the entire process. 

You can also listen and subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

John Suder: What makes discovery at SUMO different from what other agencies offer?

Melissa Curra: A lot of agencies out there work on the concept of handing in an RFP or a statement of work, or at least a high-level list or breakdown of the project they're looking for. We've mentioned in other episodes that those projects can vary wildly. It might be a straightforward eCommerce site, it might be a marketplace, a product itself, or an app. When they begin the process with agencies and they've listed out all these things the agency makes a decision internally and those decisions are based on a few things like resources, the scope, and difficulty of what the potential client is asking for. They weigh what they have internally – the time, the budget allocated for the project, and from there you get these things like proposal estimates and numbers. Most agencies work with an intricate hourly system, so they have designers, marketing experts, project and product managers, are working all in an hourly workweek. 

Those project bits and pieces equate to a number of hours and a level of effort. That's how they determine how long something's going to take and the resources they have to fit the work you've asked for. I'm sure many people are familiar with when working with an agency and if something changes you either do a change order or you submit a new statement of work and it goes in that system. You're assigned an account manager and the work you want is just contractual and straightforward. Again, not all agencies work this way but most do. At SUMO we’ve found over the years that that's not really conducive to how big of a team we are, how we think of our resources, and how we like to honor the process and product lifecycle. We ditched the concept of hourly rates and hourly work and we pose the concept of our discovery what we call a Weigh-In because it's this really in-depth intimate look at your team, its process, and its decision-making patterns.

Of course, this ultimate guide to the project we're building and a lot of agencies look at that RFP they assign a roadmap and timeline to it and they're expected on their end to fulfill the obligation to get the product out, the project out, and the feature out on time and on budget within the resources they anticipated. We work a little differently because we will re-scope. We will rework a roadmap and work with our commitment and build a realistic roadmap based on this really in-depth look at the technological solutions you're picking. It’s important to note the way your company and organization hands off information and who's accountable for what. In the long term, our goal is to stay with you and work with you and grow with you for as long as we can. Our goal is to be the ones implementing this for you, measuring its growth and its success parameters with you, and really being a partner as you go through this journey and as you put the site, the product, or the features out and understanding their value. 

A lot of agencies don't have that consulting voice and they don't have that consulting approach because they're not consulting agencies. They have the system in which they work. We break that a bit, just because we like a more intimate look into what you're building, why you're building it, how you're building it. The same people who are overseeing that at SUMO with you will also be the ones overseeing the implementation and the overall success of the site. So for us, we really like to stay connected with what our clients want. I think it really sets us apart because a lot of agencies, it's another project and they have a lot of other products going on. Your project is one of many, and when it's done, either you'll send a new contract or you won't, our goal is really much more long-term than that. 

John: I suppose this would depend on the size of the agency in terms of how they would throw resources at your project. The way SUMO does it is where you're more involved as more hands-on in your project, whether you decide to go forward or not. But hopefully, you will. Whereas maybe other agencies will use a certain team to do the discovery, then step away and hand it off to someone else. Is there success in that? Can it kind of be created in a way that can ensure success, even though you're just handing off a stack of documents to a person who up until now hasn't been involved in the process?

Melissa: I think that really just depends on the Discovery they received, and what type of agency they went to. Generally, an agency might not necessarily find that they're going to hand off this discovery content to a completely different team. You might have some faces and familiar people because again, the agency wants to do a good job and make you feel good about the decision you've made in joining them. Someone like an account manager, for as long as you work with that agency, if that's your point of contact. At SUMO, we just make it a little more intimate. We have something we call a kickoff call, which is this hour-long, initial deep dive, where we understand the tone that exists within your organization, how you're feeling about what you have now, how you're feeling about what you want to build. It's not just working off this RFP, it's not just working with resources that have an hourly association with them, it's really trying to understand what you’re building.

What does everyone need to get their job done? If you're just handing in an RFP to a marketing agency, they're not going to naturally be concerned with your organizational decision-making, because that's not how they work. That's not the type of agency they are. So we really lean into that consulting arm because we think it's the most sustainable way to build. We've been doing this for so long, and we worked on so many different types of products within so many different types of organizations, that we just understand that planning is so important. That planning can be holistic, you don't just have to plan out a product, you don't have to just build user flows. For one specific feature, you can build a user flow and a plan for how your salespeople sell, and how your marketing team measures analytics in Google, and what that means for everyone on the team. That's how we look at a Weigh-In and a discovery. Whereas a lot of agencies that's just not the game they're in.

John: Not all agencies and consultancies are built the same. We're focusing more on eCommerce. If you hire a marketing agency, they may hit the mark on the branding and the customer issues and personas and things like that, but they may miss the mark on some of the business processes and back-end things. Can you describe for us how some agencies might be different or do their processes differently than SUMO?

Melissa: I think if you're someone with a potential RFP, an idea of a site or product or feature we talked about, I think in the first episode, how important due diligence is an agency's job at the end of the day is to get you on board and to sell you their work and their team. Every agency is going to feel that they have the best team in the world. We certainly feel that way here. So I think the first part of that if you're looking for an agency looking for a person to help to build out an idea, really do the research it takes to understand what kind of agency you're going to need. Definitely shop around. Don't be afraid to ask questions that you need answered. I think people get really intimidated by this sales process. And they don't want to be straightforward about the questions and needs they might have. But the more straightforward you are, you'll get some honest answers, and at least you'll know what you're working with. 

We here at SUMO are an eCommerce consulting agency. Most agencies are equipped with divisions and branches, and thus they are an agency of people. We have a development branch, and we have project management and product management, and engineering and development management. If you came to SUMO looking for something like a branding experience, this creative and marketing experience, we wouldn't be a good fit for you. If you go to a branding agency that specializes in your look and your feel, and the soul and vibe of your company, then they're not going to be the ones with the development arm to implement the technological solutions, you're looking to put all this into play. That's not to say that you can't have all of these agencies work together. But, you should definitely understand how they're going to talk to each other and what that means for you. Do you have a point of contact facilitating these conversations? Maybe one of your agencies can step in and be that overall project manager for you, just research the type of agency they are working with, ask around with some peers in your industry, if they've ever worked with them. 

Stay committed to that due diligence, because again, not every type of agency is going to be the best fit. We've certainly found ourselves in situations where a client's a prospective client is looking for something that we're really just not equipped to do. And the best agencies will admit when they are under-equipped, or perhaps they don't have time, perhaps right now they have too many clients to take you on. They'll give you a solid recommendation about some other people you can work with. If they don't give you any recommendations, just ask because everyone who works in an agency has friends who work at an agency. So definitely just make sure you get all the answers you need to all the questions you need. Don't be shy, because an agency is going to be on the hook for the work. So ask away.

John: Let's say we've already gone through a similar process with another agency, can we show you their work and possibly cut some time out of your process?

Melissa: As long as it was applicable. If it's this 10-year-old plan, then maybe not. Maybe try to siphon relevant information. We welcome it. It helps us understand how you have historically documented things that you wanted to change, because we like to understand, even down to your writing style and the way you put things onto paper because we'll tailor our specification docs. A lot of the examples we send to people around where you're at, we like to understand and read people's knowledge base, and how long they've been working in the field. We're not going to ask for this really intricate series of information from someone who's not qualified to give it. We don't want people to feel less than right. So offer up the information you have, see if it's relevant. If you can maybe create a table of contents, or a series of just high-level descriptions of the documentation you do have that came from another agency. Also, just be sure that you're able to use that information and show it to another agency. Here at SUMO, you have every right to the information. I think absolutely, it could save you time because if there's any information in there that pertains to the solutions that design your organization, and the way you think about work, then we here at SUMO would gobble that up. We would even create some spin-off documentation based on that. If you have any information to give the agency or whoever you’re starting a discovery with, offer it up, have a conversation. Set up one-off conversations and see where it could fit into the tools they're giving you and the process that they're going on with you.

Brittany Blackman: Does that happen often? Do a lot of clients come in with some stuff already ready to go? 

Melissa: Oh, yeah. Usually, it's not from another agency, it's usually from really solid people who have been working there for a long time. A lot of development managers and a lot of engineers, part of their best practices is to document this stuff along the way. We're always really impressed by that. When they come to us with content, we are so excited because we want to work with those people the most. 

John: As I said in the last episode, the right time to start documenting is yesterday. Document every part of your process, because you never know when a feature will change, or something will change. You're going to look back and figure out where that came from. If someone's got good documentation, it makes the solution to that problem a lot easier. 

One final question: What is the SUMO touch? Or the secret sauce? What makes our discovery process or Weigh-In process so special?

Melissa: I don’t want to be redundant about why I think we're special or what makes us a bit unique to our approach with discovery and Weigh-In and really just work and client work in general, is that it doesn't always go over so great. In our sales calls, to be honest, but we don't just agree to stuff. We don't just throw numbers out there, based on RFPs. We say pretty true blue to our commitment to this Weigh-In and discovery process, we really believe in it. Prospective clients who come to us who really just are not interested in the time and money it takes to do a Weigh-In with us. It generally just doesn't work. It's just not a good fit. Like I said before, we give some really great recommendations that we believe in, and great agencies who are not so married to this Weigh-In process. For us, we just are really committed to understanding how you work and understanding how it's going to scale and grow over time. 

Our goal is a long-term relationship and partnership with people. In a lot of agencies, RFPs come and go, and they have this really rich roster of clients. So I think we do try to be really careful about the clients we onboard have to be a good fit. I think that's what makes us unique. We won't just promise you something that we're not sure we could achieve for you. It's just not a good look. And it's not what we want to be part of. So we don't over-promise, we stay super transparent. We give a lot of our time and have conversations before people are technically paying us because we want people to feel good about the money they're spending. So I think that's what makes us unique.

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