Thoughts on ecommerce strategy – common pitfalls for clients and agencies

My name is Kai and I just joined the ecomPunk authoring team. On a frequently base I will write about project and change management related issues in e-commerce. You can find more about me on the about site. I hope you enjoy my first article below.

Maybe you know that feeling: a customer is briefing you on an ecom project and after the briefing you know that you will only be the slave to do the technical stuff. Everything seems to be settled prior to meeting you and the client barely wants to know your opinion on the concepts he has. Your experience is left untouched and in the end you create stuff that you know is not good…

To be honest: I have lived through this scenario a couple of times in the past with different customers. But why is this so? Why is the success of ecom projects jeopardized in that way by the customer?
Usually the customer has a lead agency that does all the fancy marketing stuff for him. So far so good. Most of these agencies do the print stuff, some of them also the online stuff. At some point in past there usually was a strategic idea behind the website that went well together with the overall marketing strategy of the company. And then someone had the brilliant idea, that the company needs to hop on the ecommerce train. Gold rush feeling again. Strategy: Make money online! It somehow remembers me of the late 90’s when everyone wanted to be on the web – somehow. ASAP, it doesn’t matter how. Just do it.
Nowadays it seems to be a little bit like this with ecommerce. And then the lead agency sits together with the customer and thinks about an online shop. Since this usually is a marketing department driven task, the whole thing is thought through from the marketing side. Screens are designed at early stages, fancy functionality features get on the list. And then at some point in time agencies that do ecommerce are contacted. The problem now is, that all the ideas and designs are in the heads and everyone thinks it’s now “only” the shop building that keeps them from earning money on the web. Unfortunately nobody listens to you… The result of this scenario are usually huge delays in launch schedules, a lot of burnt money and loads of frustration on all sides. So what can be done to prevent a situation like this?

What clients should do:

  • Get an ecom expert on board as soon as you think you want to sell online. Yes, that will cost money, but is a good investment, as he will for sure avoid common traps along the project.
  • Even if you have a lead agency and they state they can do also ecom concepts, be very sceptical. In the real world your normal marketing agency is good in that field – marketing. But usually they are not good in ecom. That is why there are loads of specialized agencies out there that only do ecom – and nothing else.
  • If you get an ecom agency on board in later stages – just listen to them. When you do successful shops, you need loads of specialized knowledge adapted to ecom systems. This includes usability, SEO, design, performance and much more. If you go in with a “I know everything already” attitude, you will pretty sure never see this experience. If you listen to people, you can save loads of money, since you maybe have all the experts on board in a single spot – and there is no need to hire an extra SEO/usability/whatever expert!
  • An ecom shop is not something to be added to the existing strategy. The web strategy must be adapted to make ecom one of the corner stones of your company in the web if you really want to make money with it. For this strategy development get a consultant on board as early as you can. The rules in the web today are complex and (be honest to yourself) nothing you know good enough to throw money at it. Either take an external independent consultant or someone from the ecom agency you want to work with. I strongly recommend that, because it brings fresh ideas and guidance from the start. Do not rely only on the folks you already work with the whole time. So spend some extra bucks in the beginning to avoid a bitter end.
  • Again: listening to people can save money!

What agencies should do:

  • Tell the customer what you are able to do. Not just in a “and we can also do that” way. Be offensive. Let him know where you are expert. Let him know where he does not need to hire an extra agency (with extra spendings, extra communication flows, etc.).
  • Tell the client if something is shit, even if it is the whole concept! If you don’t, you will pretty sure launch a shop that is also shit… what a great reference! So be honest. If the customer can’t live with that, ask yourself if this customer is good for you. From my experience the projects where the clients do not listen to you or ignore the offered experience and therefore run into trouble are also the projects where YOU run into trouble also. So the question is, if you really need this particular project. Big names sound nice as a reference, but usually you pay a high price and the question remains, if the outcome is what you stand for.
  • Talk with the other stakeholders. Sometimes this can help. It’s a bit funny, but this ends up in an alliance to prevent client mistakes. Sure, this needs guts and also a feeling for political minefields. But if you are in an alliance and in communication with the other parties, it is possible to keep the customer from running against the wall.
  • Tell the client if something will not work out. On the client side you will usually encounter fancy ideas and features that someone there thinks are of epic importance. Don’t be shy. Put a price on them. And tell honestly what you think about. Get the focus back on what is important on the ecom site – to sell stuff. Features are usually nice, but in most cases not crucial. And the question is, if the feature will bring in a single buck more…
  • Be strict on timelines. Don’t let the client push you to unrealistic milestones. Don’t give away all your buffer just to hope that it will work somehow. It won’t. So make clear what’s realistic and what’s not.
  • Sometimes you need to tell the client that he is an idiot. Just try it. The result will surprise you. In most cases the client will start to listen to you. If he doesn’t drop him. If you are able to tell the client what a dumbass he is, you are able to work on eye-level.

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