Practical advice for educating employees about your eCommerce platform

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There are two groups of people in your eCommerce organization that are on the front-line of dealing directly with customers each day: the help desk and the call center.  Yet when we think about the software development release cycle, it’s easy to focus all of our attention on the planning, development, and testing cycles for release management  and forget about the people who provide operational support.

The work to keep the help desk and call center in the know is not difficult, but it does require periodic and intentionally focused effort. There are a few things I’ve learned over the years to help keep the front line up-to-date.

1. Make sure they are on the distribution list for release notes

You may release distribute release notes via a blog post, email, forum, group ware, etc. The point is to make sure the help desk and call center are hooked into your distribution method. The purpose of the release notes is to inform the two groups about incremental changes taking place with the eCommerce site.

2. Schedule a full site review at periodic intervals

Since the help desk and contact center may have higher turnover than some areas, it’s a good idea to offer full site reviews for new employees. I’ve seen full site reviews as a series of screen shots as well as a live demonstration of the site.

Screen shot documentation is useful to have for reference, especially if there are screens that are several clicks off the typical purchase funnel path. But the screen shot compilations are time consuming to maintain and easy to push to the back of your “to do” list. So you have to carve out time to do it.

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Regardless of if you update such a document with each release it is good to have an off-line screen capture document created at least once each year so that you maintain a historical archive of screen flows. That makes marketers and historians happy when they want to peer into the past.

There are a few important aspects to capture in the full site review to give the help desk and call center targeted information that they may need to resolve customer questions:

* How the customer finds information for additional help. This might include email, eChat, FAQs, and the phone number listed. Pay particular attention to the FAQs. They are often forgotten and may contain outdated information.

* Who to contact if product information needs to updated. Customers may often want to get clarification on the product description or specifications. If the eCommerce product page contains incorrect product information or could use an adjustment, the help desk and contact center need to know who the product manager is so they can have it updated.

* How pricing works. Make sure the agents know how pricing works on the site, especially delivery pricing.

Other important questions will come up during your review that are specific to the content and flow of your site. A full site review also gives you a chance to hear about voice of customer concerns directly from those who talk to the customer. So you can expect to learn things you didn’t know, or really didn’t expect to hear about how customers are using the site.

eCommerce solutions ownership – customer focused results

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An important role in an eCommerce operation is responsibility for solutions ownership and the results delivered to senior management and other stakeholders. It’s a senior role that focuses on the macro level results that  define the success and viability of the eCommerce team. In addition to the traditional financial and market metrics, the solutions owner must deliver customer focused results. It’s the customer focus that provides the building blocks for the traditional results and helps to set an eCommerce team apart from it’s competitors.

Traditional financial results

A solutions owner is responsible for profitable results with positive contribution margins. The contribution margin of a product is defined as the revenue minus the variable costs. eCommerce sites should consider both product variable costs as well as an allocation cost assigned to the channel for the variable costs associated with keeping the site running.

What about cost reduction? Typically, eCommerce operations help to reduce costs because they scale well and require less labor to maintain for the level of output. Cost reduction can be tied into the profitability calculations if the variable costs for the eCommerce channel are less than those for other channels. In this case, the channel would be more profitable per sale.

Customer focused financial results

An often overlooked part of financial results are those of the client, in a B2B relationship, or a customer, in a B2C relationship. In a B2B framework, the solutions owner is responsible not only for delivering results to his own company, but to his client as well.  The eCommerce operation is as successful as it is in keeping the client in business with it’s customers. The mission is to make the client profitable. This concept applies whether your site a straight B2B or a B2B2C site. Either way, the costs of the products from your eCommerce will be part of the final price that the end-customer pays and part of the profitability of the middle business.

The solution owner should also be concerned about the financial results of the customer because the customer’s financial results determine if they’ll be repeat customers. In this sense, the financial results must be in alignment with the strategic positioning of the product in the market place. If your product competes on lowest cost (i.e. Wal-Mart)  then obviously customers will repeat as long as they feel they get a better price. But if you compete on something other than price (i.e. Chic-Fil-A with community and customer service), then you will help customers to find ways to off-set the price premium. My drawer is full of Chic-Fil-A coupons for free food.  That makes me feel financially successful with those purchases. But it also makes me spend more money at their stores because when I go, I usually buy for other members in my family. I could list many other examples of this, but the point is the solutions manager must consider the financial results to the end-customer.

Traditional market results

Typically a solutions owner oversees market results that focus on market share, units sold, and the percentage of products sold through the eCommerce channel (channel penetration). These are good and necessary result categories that show how the eCommerce operation is performing in a broader context. It’s important to note that growth may not be the expected result in all cases. If the product is in the declining stage of its product life-cycle then year-over-year comparisons may be expected to show decline.

Customer focused market results

A solutions owner with a customer focused view of market results recognizes that the eCommerce channel does not compete with other channels but is offered as a complementary channel to the customer. In the early days of eCommerce, many companies setup the eCommerce channel as a stand-alone profit center with separate P&L metrics from other channels. There was fear among retailers that the eCommerce site would cut into the storefront sales. That kind of thinking leads to internal competition and moves the focus away from the customer. Over the years, companies have realized that customers like to shop using multiple channels.  So it’s the job of the eCommerce site to deliver an experience on par with a brick and mortar storefront and that has cross channel linking for the customer.

Organizational results

A third area for solution owners to deliver results is with organizational engagement.  As with any good manager the solutions owner must engage employees in the overall mission and success of the team. This means communicating openly about the objectives of the team and explaining how the objectives align to the greater organization. People respond when they believe and understand how they belong to the bigger picture.

Defining an eCommerce Operation – Solution Ownership

UPDATE 10/27/10 – I posted a mind map of my eCommerce Operation on mindmeister that replaces the original map contained in this post. This includes the latest updates to my organizational thoughts on an eCommerce team.

ecommerceoperationMy boss sent me a mind-map from MindMesiter last week for an eCommerce Operation. The map attempts to define the elements that make up an eCommerce operation in an organization. This type of thought and discussion is relevant for those that are running eCommerce and Internet Marketing groups. I’ll summarize my thoughts on the topic in this and future posts. The first area of the map is for solution ownership.  By the way, I don’t actively use the MindMeister site, so I’m converting the thoughts to a concept map using the software found at CmapTools.

Obviously there is not a single owner of an eCommerce operation. There are multiple individuals and team roles that serve as owners of specific elements. I see ownership or ultimate accountability in three key areas of the operation.

Feature Set

The product manager is responsible for sorting and prioritizing inputs from stakeholders that represent multiple functional areas of the business. It’s essential that the product manager know and understand the goals and objectives of the current business plan. These serve as the guide post by which decisions related to priority are made.

The features of a website may be grouped into high level categories such as communication, order entry, or customer relationship. Communication features are related to targeted messages, product display, guides, and instructions. These types of features aim to merchandise the products in the store effectively and to guide customers to targeted areas. Order entry features make sure the customer can put products into a cart and complete the sales funnel. Typical features in this area involve payments, delivery, and order processing. Customer relationship features involve the customer profile, self service ability, help pages, and contact-us type pages.


Depending on the area being measured, the results of the eCommerce operation are owned by the product manager, marketing, or the IT group.

The product manager is responsible for ensuring the site content and functionality are aligned to business goals. This role should make sure that system stays up-to-date, contains fresh content, and does not contain elements that prevent customers from ordering. Results are measured in areas such as product accuracy, web site release cycle timing, and resolution of business needs.

The marketing group is responsible for defining programs and metrics that align to the three eCommerce key performance indicators:

  1. The number of customers to the store
  2. The number of customers that buy from the store
  3. The amount of money that customers spend in the store

The IT systems group is responsible for the availability and performance of the site. If you don’t have IT at the table as an accountable group for eCommerce results in your organization then you need to think twice. Sites that are unavailable to a customer when they choose to shop create a lost sale. There are plenty of sites on the Internet to shop from and chances are a competitor site is available. Slow speed? A definite customer turn-off. Make sure the store is open and the lights are on.

Competitive/Industry Alignment

Who is responsible for making sure  that your site content and offering are competitive with the current market or better yet distinguish you from your competition? This part of the operation should be assigned to Sales and Marketing. Sales because they have the closest relationships with customers and clients. They should be aware of how competitors are positioning their products and services. They’ll know why you’ve not been able to close deals in the past and they’ll know what customers are asking to have in the web site. The marketing group may contain a strategist that can analyze industry level trends or provide input on potential new products where there could be market demand. They can use tools such as SWOT analysis (Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) to examine how the eCommerce site fits into its market space.

Certainly there are more team members in an eCommerce operation. Each team member is part owner of the overall system and responsible for their contributions. Let me know your thoughts on a eCommerce operation. Is your organization structured differently or do you think it should be structured differently?