How to pick your agency’s PM software [Step-by-Step Guide]

Written by: Karl Sakas

An agency owner asked me: “What PM software do you recommend? We’re in the process of switching from our current system.” She was considering Basecamp for client-facing and internal communication, and she planned to continue using FunctionFox for time-tracking. [Updated: May 2024]

Basecamp is useful as a client communications tool, but it’s not really a full-scale PM tool. More problematic, the company’s reputation for best-in-class culture appears to have been a mirage. If you’re on Basecamp today, you’ll need to weigh whether to switch. But I would no longer recommend switching to Basecamp in the first place.

Ready to look further? I have a running list of PM software for agencies—currently with 90+ different options~ For example:

  • Want an all-in-one solution for agency software? You should probably pick Workamajig… but you’ll get the best results if go “all in” on using it for everything (including your accounting).
  • Agencies tend to like Asana, for ease of use and the app integration options.
  • Teamwork is fairly comprehensive, but not everyone likes the user experience.

In general, my bias is against switching tools, due to the inherent productivity “hit” every time you switch. That is, you’re going to see a drop in billables as you switch, and the new tool may not fix all your past problems—and it’ll likely introduce new ones. (I remember a week several years ago where one client was switching to MavenLink while another was switching from MavenLink.) But sometimes you do decide the pros outweigh worth the cons.

If your agency is considering switching PM tools, I recommend that ask your senior-most PM to lead the process. If you don’t have a PM, that will fall on your senior-most operations person… or to you as the owner.

Let’s look at the step-by-step process I recommend to help you choose the best PM software for your agency!

PM software selection process: 23 steps for your agency

When it comes to building a PM tool selection process, I recommend the following 23 steps:

  1. Don’t do it. That is, think really hard about whether changing PM software is worth the pain and disruption to your agency. Whatever you move to, you’ll have new problems. There is no perfect PM software for agencies. Can’t resist? Read on.
  2. Choose someone to lead the selection process. Typically this would be the Director of Operations, a senior PM, or (in smaller agencies) the most detail-oriented partner.
  3. Identify why you want to switch tools… and why it’ll be worth the hassle and the initial reduction in productivity as you switch.
  4. Accept that nothing’s going to be perfect. Agencies typically use a combo of 2-3 tools to accomplish key parts of their work, including separate financial software.
  5. Make a list of gaps in your current setup.
  6. Confirm you can’t close those gaps via plugins, add-on integrations, and/or process changes. “Shiny object syndrome” is not your friend.
  7. Still sure you need to switch? Make a list of must-have and nice-to-have features. The goal is to create a consolidated “requirements” document, where all key stakeholders agree about the priorities.
  8. Review my article on PM software options for agencies. There are dozens and dozens of options.
  9. Read other articles out there on picking PM software. This is a big decision; you’re picking something to last you 3+ years.
  10. As you review the options, refine your list of features (including adjusting the prioritization).
  11. Narrow your list down to 3-5 options to explore further.
  12. Do the online tour, do a demo, and assess whether their support resources seem comprehensive to your needs.
  13. Narrow your list to 2-3, for doing free trials.
  14. Choose a sample project for your trial. Ideally, it’ll be similar to what you’d use the tool for in the future; I do NOT recommend using it for a live project, since that’s too mission-critical a situation.
  15. Decide which team members will participate in the tests. Initially, you might want the PM to load the project before you invite others to participate, but some of that depends on how involved the rest of the team wants to be.
  16. Simultaneously test the project in the 2-3 finalist systems.
  17. Consider which options you can drop from the process, due to any “dealbreaker” findings.
  18. Weigh where you need to expand the test—for instance, enlisting more team members, adding client engagements, asking a live client to help you generate feedback (preferably someone who’ll feel flattered by the request, rather than annoyed).
  19. Make a decision. (Again, accepting there isn’t a perfect choice.)
  20. Have the selection leader also lead the migration process.
  21. Choose whether to do a cold-turkey switch (everyone moves over) or a gradual shift (partial movement). Each has pros and cons; go with the approach that fits your agency’s culture.
  22. Breathe a brief sigh of relief.
  23. Start getting annoyed about the new tool… but make yourself wait 3+ years before you change again.

Question: What’s next in your agency’s PM software selection process?

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