5 things to think about before starting a new CRO project

by Gerda Vogt-Thomas

January 27, 2022

Gerda Vogt-Thomas

From the perspective of an external CRO consultant, it’s not very easy to predict if a project is going to be a huge success or not based on a couple of initial conversations and sales or discovery calls. However, if you do this type of work for a while you start to see some patterns and learn the hard way through experience that not every cooperation is meant to be. Which is ok.

There are certain things that could still help you navigate the hard decision of whether to take on a new CRO project or not that you should really think deeply about before signing the contract and starting that new engagement.

1. The Basics

  • Trust your gut

Examine the communication style of your potential partners on this new project you want to take on. If within the first meetings people are being rude and condescending towards you, then probably it’s not likely to get better.

  • The cultural background of the project team

With today's global remote work culture this aspect may not seem as relevant because we all essentially use the same online tools like Zoom, Slack, Google products, and testing and research tools, but if you work internationally and want the engagement to last more than a month, you have to take the cultural background of your team members on the project into account. North Americans have extremely different expectations for communication compared to Eastern Europeans and so on and so on.

  • Make sure the bills get paid

Always issue the invoice at the beginning of the engagement with very clear payment terms that you’ve discussed upfront - make sure these terms are not news to anyone on the other side. If the excuses start pouring in about how the company is not able to suddenly meet these terms, then that’s obviously a red flag.

Be also aware of people who try to negotiate some kind of conditional payment options into the contract where you only get paid if you show a specific percentage of lift/ROI within a predetermined amount of time. This usually means that the person you’re dealing with doesn't really believe in the value of a CRO program and your abilities in the first place.

2. Short vs long- term mindset

This might be one of the most important determining factors for how the project will end up. The topic ties in with the last point about agreeing to performance-based pricing.

If they want quick wins and set-in-stone promises, they don’t understand the value of optimization. Now read that again.

There are good reasons why people are obsessed with quick wins over long-term gains. You could find reasons for this from basic human psychology, but in the optimization industry, one of the main contributors is “experts” mostly sharing case studies of wins without all the hard work and preparation that leads to them and therefore creating the expectation that experimentation is this awesome way to earn a lot of money fairly quickly. This makes companies see CRO as a new exciting channel to invest in rather than a long-term company-wide strategy and process for how the whole organization thinks about changing things in its digital space.

This is the point where you have to do a personal risk analysis and decide what the probability is of you convincing them of the value of the program. If you manage to negotiate them out of setting conditional ROI and payment terms, then that is already a really good sign.

Figuring out a minimum engagement time is usually helpful. For testing retainers, most consultants and agencies like to sign the initial contract for at least 3 months to make sure there’s time to do thorough onboarding, research and get a couple of good tests in there as well.

3. Internal company buy-in

How much buy-in does your point of contact actually have in that company? Do they have the authority to make things happen that will move the program along?

For a successful program, you will need a lot of help from the client-side, at least at first. There will be data gathering to set up, implementation issues to understand, and much more. A lot of this you won’t have direct access to and will need to rely on the help of your client.

A common issue is that often when you’re selling specialized project services like CRO you initially deal with someone from the management, someone who does believe in the value of the work that you do and really wants to make change happen in their company.

Then when the project actually starts, they hand the day-to-day over to some mid-level specialist who hasn’t been involved in these discussions and doesn’t really understand the value or purpose of the engagement. They start to see the external contractors as more of a weekly nuisance rather than a source of knowledge and help for the company. And worst of all, they usually don’t have that kind of pull in the company compared to that important marketing director you sold the actual project to. This will generate many roadblocks and bureaucratic issues and end up being one of the main reasons that drive the project to the ground.

Something you can try to do here is getting very clear on who is going to be the main internal point of contact on the client side. Relay this message to the leaders you’re selling to and stress this many times that for the project to be a success on both ends, you need someone to work with inside the company who has the authority to make decisions in this area. Try to even get that person involved in conversations as early as possible.

4. Are they willing to share the power and responsibility?

Having a capable teammate to work with on the inside is half the battle. Are they willing to let go and give you the freedom to decide what is best for the program and what to test or will they try to force their own ideas on the program?

Leaders who hire consultants mostly understand that they don’t necessarily have the knowledge or resources for a specific area available in-house and want a specialist to rely on.

A lot of the time however the project tends to get off track because the internal team has a load of ideas they want to test out first. This in itself is of course not a bad thing and ideas are always welcome, however, if you are the main person responsible for the outcome of this project, you should also have the authority to make the last call on what is best for the program.

It helps to have a really clear understandable process for submitting, filtering, and acting on prioritized ideas. If a functional CRO program management process is something you’re struggling with, check out this template we created in Airtable just for this purpose. It’s completely free and comes with a detailed email onboarding flow on how to get the most out of it.

At the end of the day, it does need to be a symbiotic relationship and sometimes you might need to compromise and let the company implement whatever they want to implement because after all, it is their company. At the same time being blamed for bad test results that are based on the internal team's unresearched ideas is not a good position to be in. As an optimizer, a big part of your job is to bridge the gap between these two extremes and constantly educate your client without stepping on anyone's toes too much.

5. Wait.. but what about their traffic and overall program maturity?

The typical factors of how much traffic/conversions they have etc. will determine how you design the program and not so much how good of a client or how successful the overall project is going to be.

These factors are the things you hear most when someone talks about starting a new experimentation program. And these things are important for sure.

What sort of traffic do they have, what is the condition of the analytics set up, what’s their experimentation program maturity level, what’s the tech stack like, what kind of resources do they have? You’ll figure these things out along the way and it will influence how you structure the project, but you can work around and even change these aspects. Changing someone's mindset from seeing something as a short-term quick win to long-term strategic investment and aligning your entire communication style with someone else's is much more difficult.

Bringing it all together

The longevity of an engagement between two parties is often viewed as an indicator of the project's success. The better things are, the more both sides will want to keep going. As a third-party consultant, it is way harder to achieve this compared to an in-house employee.

The selling of your services doesn’t stop after the contract is signed, it becomes almost a daily task to keep justifying your existence. This is why retraining your mind around explaining what you’re doing is important. Instead of having to justify every action, think of it as education instead. By teaching and sharing with others what you know, you’ll end up learning way more yourself.