A Business Technology Place

Crossing departmental boundaries with your eCommerce team

This is my 300th blog post!

So much is written about the strained relationship between IT and other business departments such as Marketing or Sales. Both departments want to achieve the same goal of creating a service for the customer.  Both departments want to be predictable in their service delivery. But they define predictability differently which is the basis for friction and a strained relationship.

For an eCommerce team the boundaries between departments are often strained because of estimated work effort, estimated costs, volume of work produced, and the velocity of work produced. Unfortunately all of these take the focus of the relationship away from the true goal to produce working software that provides a valuable solution to the customer (one in which the company should make money).boundarycrossing

Here are a few techniques that I have found to be valuable when approaching relationships with other departments in the business. Remember to always turn the conversation back to the ultimate goal.

Deliver smaller work units according to a regular cadence.
Build confidence by showing incremental progress towards solution delivery. The big bang approach to software delivery keeps the internal customers in the dark about how the final solution is progressing and creates a longer period of time before the customer can begin to use any of the solution.

I hear IT people say that it is tough to get business people involved in the process defining requirements. So I advise breaking the work into smaller units of work or a subset of the larger group of features. Show progress towards the goal and transform the discussion with the business owner to one of results rather than waiting. Business stakeholders are more open to conversations and supportive when they see progress along the way.

IT won’t be able to solve all the incoming requests.
Somewhere along the course of time the business units developed an expectation that anything they request will be completed and IT, or a smaller group like eCommerc, automatically assumes they must complete every request. But let’s face it, there are always more requests and ideas than the eCommerce team can implement. This is what leads to product roadmaps and backlogs.

Many people view IT as a large cost center to the business. Technology capital and labor is expensive. So shouldn’t the business want make sure that the team is working on items that will provide a return?  Let’s be real. Sales and Marketing are not able to solve all requests they get either, and many cases work with customers for work-arounds and alternative solutions.

Get agreement to this concept from department heads so that expectations are clear. Then get the department heads to be involved in the process of what work has the best forecast to move everyone towards the goal of returning investment back to the business. Mutual involvement, risk taking, and reward sharing is key.

When possible visit them in-person.
Strong Relationships are built in-person. When I want to discuss the priorities, schedule, or work-in-progress of the team I try to pay the business contact a personal visit. Yes, that means getting up and walking away from desk. It means not trying to live my business life completely in email. My experience is that the spoken word helps to achieve cohesion and unity with the business contact. It creates more of a bond and a feeling that you are solving the puzzle together.

Conflicts can be unlocked by finding your common goal.
Conflicts and differences of opinion are inevitable. There are many ways to solve conflicts but to create a good cross collaborative approach we need to focus on the common goal. For eCommerce teams and business owners that is to produce working software that provides a return on the investment (make money!).

I like the evaporating cloud technique for solving conflict. Answer these questions:

1. What do I want? What do they want? (precisely verbalize the conflict)
2. What need do I have that causes me to insist on that want? What need do they have that causes them to insist on their want?
3. What is the common objective?

The Conflict

  • Business – Get valid estimates upfront
  • eCommerce Team – Give valid estimates after all requirements are given

The need

  • Business – Give the customer feedback when the request can be completed and for what cost
  • eCommerce Team – Provide the best quality by knowing all of the requirements upfront

The common goal

  • Produce working software that provides a solution to the customer and return to the business.

Then challenge the assumptions in the middle and find ways invalidate the assumptions which will produce ways to break the conflict.  From my example, does the customer expect that the full project will be delivered in one piece? Can the customer take delivery in multiple pieces? For the eCommerce team does the customer know fully what they want and can they articulate it upfront?

At some point in the process an assumption may be proved false which will provide a way to unlock the conflict.

Practical advice for educating employees about your eCommerce platform

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.

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.

Customer surveys as voice of the customer

Using online surveys to talk to your eCommerce customers can be a rewarding as well as painful experience. Painful in the sense that customers will tell you your weaknesses or where your site falls short of their expectations. Yet isn’t that a reward as well?

There are an abundance of online survey tool options available today. The tools make it easy to create, deploy, and analyze results. Yet the value for eCommerce product owners is opening the door to hear the voice of the customer. This concept is so import that customer surveys are a product owner responsibility on the eCommerce organization mind map.

Getting results real-time brings more attention
Traditional print and mail surveys make it difficult to get survey results. It’s usually a multi-step process that involves exporting results, importing data into a database or spreadsheet, and then creating reports. With an online customer survey system, results are available real-time by authenticating to an administrative console where answers for each question are automatically tallied and graphed. I always say “people get easy, people like easy, people use easy.” That holds true for business processes as it does for eCommerce site use. When the tools are easy to use they’ll get more use and attention.

Customer surveys are a great tool for primary research
But let’s not forget what we are really after with customer surveys; to find the voice of the customer. Remember, surveys are a way to find data that doesn’t already exist. It’s a way to here first-hand from customers how they feel, what they see, or what they might do. Did you catch that? It’s a way to stay relevant to customers by hearing what’s important to them.

Change the questions at regular intervals
Traditional paper surveys have limitations based on the number of surveys distributed, the logistics of delivery, and the timing of the analysis. Online customer surveys change these limitations because questions can be changed without worrying about unused print inventory or the time to collect answers. This advantage is important because it allows product managers to change questions at regular intervals. I like to think of this as keeping a conversation going rather than repeating yourself over-and-over again.

Use the answers to justify work and test hypothesis
Product owners get a double benefit from the answers they receive from online customer surveys. When answers turn into patterns and patterns turn into a majority, the product manager can use this evidence to justify changes on the eCommerce site. Additionally, the answers serve as a basis to test theories within the business about certain topics. Would a customer buy this new product? How does the customer like the new payment options? What products would the customer like to see in the future?

On more thing. Reading open responses on customer surveys requires thick skin. Remember, some customers are responding to the survey because they’ve had a bad experience with the site, service, or products offered to them. This can create strong emotions with people. Read through their emotions to find the core issue. That’s the real voice of the customer.

What web analytics really provides

If you ask eCommerce professionals what role analtyics plays in their organization you’ll undoubtedly receive many answers that concern numbers, charts, and graphs. The Wikipedia community has defined web analytics as “the measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of internet data for purposes of understanding and optimizing web usage.” This is a good definition because it touches on a purpose of analytics as an optimization process.

Are you using analytics to make your vision clearer?

But web analytics is so much more than numbers, charts, and graphs. It’s certainly useful for more than optimizing web usage. Web analytics has a role in the eCommerce organization because it is an activity that is useful for decision making.

Web analytics is story telling
At the end of analytics processes is story about your customers and/or your web site. The numbers, charts, and graphs paint a picture or tell a story about the what, when, why, how, and where of your customer’s actions and decisions. I like to think of my analytics reports as my daily newspaper or weekly magazine that tells me what is happening in the internet store.

Web analytics is fact mining
We don’t need to make decisions based on biases, perceptions, or opinions when we have web analytics data. It’s like digging in a mine and finding fact nuggets. Number of visitors, number of purchases, pages visited, time on the site, number of items purchased are just examples of undisputable facts. Those nuggets can be refined into decisions, so fill up your cart.

Web analytics is puzzle solving
Most people love a good puzzle. Our internet sites don’t disappoint with creating them either. Are people interested in that new product? How many customers purchase because free shipping is offered? How many customers abandon when they see a promotion code box? Why did sales for January increase over December? This list goes on and on. Web analytics more times than not, is able to solve these puzzles because it’s flexible for customization and can target specific data, down to the individual customer if necessary.

Web analytics is performance evaluation
How is the site performing year-over-year, quarter-over-quarter, or day-by-day? Web analytics is useful for analyzing data to create baselines and trendlines for key metrics. That becomes valuable to understand if the release implemented last night is negatively or positively effecting key metrics. It’s valuable to determine if the performance of the site this year increase or decreased over last year.

Web analytics is predictive modeling
The same trendlines used for performance evaluation of past events can also be used for predictive modeling useful in forecasting results. If there is a consistent acceptance rate of an add-on accessory to a certain product, you can forecast sales of that accessory. The number of product sales resulting from certain types of email campaigns help build a an inventory forecast for future email campaigns.

Web analytics is achieving relevance
Business decision making is about staying relevant to customers and relevancy to customers equates to business success and longevity. Making business decisions based on customer behavior is a contributing factoring to staying relevant. This may include what products to discontinue because of low interest, what products sell better with a discount, or even what the optimal price point is for a group of products. Knowing customers behaviors and choices is a must for staying relevant.

And finally, the real value of web analytics is in the web analyst
At the end of the day, numbers and data don’t automatically group together to form reports. It’s the web analyst that performs the magic. The web analyst is a craftsman with a tool. They create stories, they help solve problems, they evaluate releases, and forecast future results. Web analysts may not be the most visible role in your organization, but something tells me they like it that way. As Arthur O’Shaughnessy wrote in Ode

“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams”

Make sure your staff has a good music maker. Everyone likes to dance.

Photo credit: Michael David Pedersen via creative commons 2.0

Rethink competitive analysis

Solution owners have the responsibility of performing a competitive analysis for an eCommerce team. It’s the process of knowing exactly how your site compares to the competition. We define if we are ahead, behind, or on par with key features that the industry and customers require. I’ve seen projects justified in the name of competitive alignment and at a larger scale entire strategies formulated in order to copy the competition.

But who says the competition is right?
Are they right because they are your competitor? If a competitor has an eCommerce site with a certain feature does that mean that my site must have it also? The answer is maybe. But it’s not your competitor that defines what is right, it’s your customers.

A better way to perform competitive analysis
First look at your customer input from tools such as surveys, web analytics research, and suggestion boxes. These tools will tell you what features customers value, those they don’t, and those they wish they had. This gives you the success factors or features to use in a competitive analysis grid. In other words, rather than using your competition as the baseline for success, use input from your customers.

It’s a multifaceted solution
When we start with what our customers are asking for first, we get a good view at the important features for the entire industry. This will provide some insight into competive analysis activities for new competitors or competitors with complementary products. Additionally, the will of the customer should be and is a much stronger position for project justification than merely copying a competitor.

Competitive analysis does have merit
With a thorough analysis you can see how you stack up to your competitor in meeting what customers value. You may have advantages in some areas and be behind in other areas. Plus, defining how you differ from the competition is one step towards creating your value proposition for prospective customers and investors.

Solutions ownership and competitive analysis are part of a complete eCommerce organization. See my mind map for an eCommerce organization for further thoughts on this topic.