Learn from the mistakes of others – Nine tips for a successful e-commerce project
Over the last few years I have been involved in several projects where the aim was to build a new online store or portal. Considering my profession, my own role and approach has naturally revolved around the integration of product information from our PIM system to the online store, but I have also observed many other aspects of these projects. Also, in my private life, we are embarking upon a housebuilding project. When doing research for that project, I found that there are many similarities with e-commerce projects, even though the end products are very different.
Here are some of my observations – I hope some people facing similar challenges will find them helpful!
1. Know what you want and be prepared to measure your success
- If you don’t have a clear vision about what it is you’re looking for and why you have started the project in the first place, it will be difficult to achieve satisfactory results. Therefore, you should start by clearly outlining your main goals as well as the reasons for wanting to achieve them. For instance, if your objective is to double your e-commerce revenue, multiplying the amount of products sold in your web store, or improving the customer experience, it is advisable to think about ways to measure these results after the project is completed.
- Defining the project should be done at this early stage – write down your requirements for the new online shop prior to launching the project. The better your understanding is of what you require from your web store (or even your new house) before you start the bidding process, the more accurate and comparable the quotations you receive will be. This preparation is also directly correlated with the amount of surprises you will have on the way.
2. If you are not yourself an expert, hire a reliable consultant
- Building a new web store sounds like it’s not supposed to be rocket science, and this may even be true in principle. However, ecom solutions can be tricky in the sense that they often require one, two or even three integrations. Some seemingly small things can become surprisingly large problems, especially when they emerge in the middle of the project.
- Therefore, before you start your first round of bidding, you should always try to find an expert, preferably a neutral third party who can help you define the project and request quotations. No matter how well you do your homework, a layperson will find it difficult to grasp all the relevant knowledge, particularly in a bit of a rush. A good consultant can help you get on the right track from the start and define the project, which helps you avoid expensive surprises in the final stages. You may end up paying “extra” to a consultant, but in reality this is likely to save you both time and money.
3. Buying a pre-fabricated ‘turnkey’ solution does not mean that you don’t have to do any work yourself
- Many web store builders (and house-builders, I’ve heard) are surprised by the amount of work required, even if you aren’t coding a single line or hammering any nails into the wall yourself. Therefore, it is important to be mentally prepared and to have the necessary resources, clearly defined roles, and realistic deadlines. An e-commerce project will require at least one internal project manager (who may well spend half of his or hers working hours on the project), IT support for designing interfaces and data flow, and probably some product management support in cases where the data content as such does not support the vision.
4. Have a solid foundation
- Make sure that your background systems such as ERP/PLM and PIM can support the new e-commerce. It is particularly important to check the quality of product information prior to starting the project. If you want your online store to have the world’s greatest (or even average) search features and filters, as well as comprehensive product information, the data has to be structurally sound and checked in advance. Many people find out only after the e-commerce project is launched that a large portion of their time is spent cleaning up and making sense of old data, as this has to be done if product information is to be presented in a sharp manner. In this stage, at the very latest, you should consider incorporating a Product Information Management (PIM) system, because ERP and the web store are very rarely sufficient if the goal is to have a functioning product information process and comprehensive product information.
5. Invite bids
- Just like building a house, a new e-commerce solution is an expensive project, and I can’t think of any good reason not have a bidding process. Squeezing the budget is sensible, if not for any other reason than to gain an understanding of the price range and the various implementation options from different suppliers. You might need to spend a bit more time than you would if you gave the project to the first vendor with an impressive sales pitch, but in my experience this is a worthwhile investment.
- On the other hand, a bidding process will not amount to anything if you don’t know what you want. In the worst case scenario, the quotes you receive won’t be comparable to one another because the definition of the project was too narrow or too ambiguous. Therefore, it is important to focus on the definition now if you haven’t already. A coherent project definition requires that you have completed the steps in Section 1 and that you know what you want and can express it in a coherent and detailed manner. The more detailed the description of your requirements is, the easier it will be to compare bids and to get on with the project.
6. Choose your partner carefully
- When building my own house, I have obviously collected advice from friends who have already built theirs plus read through various online forums, and this research has helped in eliminating at least a few suppliers – the same can probably be done with e-commerce providers. In my experience, a large supplier is not the best match for a smaller client because a large company is not always interested in devoting resources to a small client, and therefore the project might be poorly managed. For a smaller company each new client is important and your project will receive their full attention. Therefore, you should choose a provider that is similar in size to your business.
7. Demand documentation
- Just like constructing a house, it is critical for the future maintenance of the online store to know what has been installed, when and where. If you want to make changes to the presentation of information or your integrations, it’s like taking down a wall in your house: you would want to know how things were built and where the electrical wiring is without having to tear down the entire house to find out.
- Often people get the feeling in the implementation stage of the project that the supplier will take care of things according to your specifications and you can just monitor their progress from the sidelines. However, according to my experience, it is important to stay alert in this stage and demand that all agreed upon actions are properly documented. Anything that is not written in ink does not officially exist, and you are dependent on the good will of the supplier. Often this good will works just fine, but to ensure peace of mind and the ease of future maintenance work, it’s important to demand proper documentation, no matter how tedious this may be.
8. Testing, testing and more testing
- It would be great if everything went according to plan and the first version was perfect, but unfortunately you can’t count on this. Both software and houses come with some guarantees, but it’s usually easier (and cheaper) to fix issues if they are detected at an early stage. In this stage you should also seriously consider hiring a consultant if you are at all unsure about your own expertise. This will probably save you both time and money (and some nerves).
9. When the project is completed, take good care of maintenance processes and internal role assignments
- Yes! The project is completed and now we can sit back and relax! Unfortunately not quite – when you finish building your house or your online shop, you should be self-sufficient and capable of getting the best possible returns for your investment. In this stage your own internal division of labour becomes critical – you have to decide who within your organisation is responsible for the proper maintenance of your store (or house) and for making sure that it responds to changes. This may require less work than the development stage, but you should not underestimate the amount of resources you need to devote to it. In addition to these resources, technology is changing so fast that you should also have a budget for constant minor development work to avoid your online shop becoming outdated.