Set your online channels up for success by making the commerce foundation robust, modular and scalable.
The rapid deployment of commerce enabling technologies is empowering consumers, businesses and government buyers to choose how they access and receive goods and services. This has lead to an explosion of electronic business that is contributing to a fundamental realignment of virtually every industry sector, and to the advancement of customer-centered, unique, and intimate relationships between businesses and their customers.
Retailers and distributors are not exempt from these phenomena. They recognize the need to both embrace these technologies and streamline operations by leveraging technology-enabled customer-centric service delivery as they are trying to move closer to customers by delivering a beautifully executed, consistent experience at every touchpoint, channel and device. For this reason, I’d like to speak to a few lessons learned through my retail experience. It does feel strange offering advice to an industry I consider I know very little about, with a whole different set of complexities inherent to this industry. However, having spent the last decade helping retailers transform digitally, analyzing customer journeys, and building innovative customer-focused technologies, I feel that - whether in retail shopping or buying in the context of B2B - end-user expectations are becoming more and more the same. I like to look at it this way: your B2B end-user is expecting the same range of omnichannel buying options they enjoy as B2C consumers with the same consistent interaction across channels.
The number of channels available for customer interactions continues to grow, and now includes mobile applications, social media, live chat, and text-based messaging services. Only five years ago, mobile enablement was a “nice to have” feature for many enterprise applications – it’s now considered table stakes. Once the domain of science fiction, advances in processing power and machine learning algorithms now permit applications to make complex predictive recommendations based on enormous training data sets. With use cases in cryptocurrency well established, many organizations are experimenting with how blockchain can be used to enable better functionality for contract execution.
As a result of this channel proliferation, the eCommerce ecosystem is rapidly growing in complexity. For businesses interested in improving their approach, here are a few areas of consideration for technology selection and defining your technology roadmap. In my experience, building a robust, modular and scalable commerce foundation will maximize your return on investment, but most importantly, it will be a key enabler for your organization to keep up with market changes, innovate and scale. Don’t get me wrong - I’m a big believer in experimentation and failing fast philosophy, but here are 5 areas where you shouldn’t make compromises.
CHALLENGE #1: ATTEMPTING TO KILL TOO MANY BIRDS WITH ONE STONE
An eCommerce platform is part a broader ecosystem that enables your digital customer experience. Be cautious when attempting to solve too many requirements within a single solution. IT leaders are challenged with consolidating vendors & platforms, but should pay special attention to capabilities that are not normally core to an eCommerce platform. How and where your content will be managed, where to reconcile customer profiles, manage customer consent, manage promotions, deliver rich media, run marketing automations, and detect fraud are just a few examples of functions that, depending on your context, might be better served by other solutions. Over-relying on a single platform might result in having to make compromises that will impact customer experience and revenue, and will not allow you to scale, let alone serve multiple channels in a consistent way.
Recommendation: Clearly define the scope of your eComm platform within the ecosystem
In my point of view, there are three major system categories when it comes to enabling customer experience:
- 1. Systems of records
- 2. Systems of engagement
- 3. Systems of intelligence
Systems of records are ERP-type systems you rely on to run your business. They contain the master records in key domains such as product and customer information. They have to be accurate and integrated so all data is consistent.
Systems of intelligence aggregate and use large amounts of data such as IoT data or customer interactions and contextual information. Their power is in mining in near real-time to anticipate, influence, and optimize customer experiences or business decisions.
Finally, systems of engagement, which eCommerce platforms are part of, are used directly by end-users for "sticky uses”. They provide a consistent and continuous experience across channels.
Ensure you have a clear digital vision that is translated into required business capabilities which in turn are mapped to a target architecture. When defining your architecture and selecting an eCommerce solution, ensure you establish a clear delineation between what the eCommerce platform will solve vs. what needs will be enabled through other components of the ecosystem. This will prevent having to deal with failed promises, unsupported customizations and missed opportunities down the road. As an example, avoid using the eCommerce platform to consolidate product information coming from multiple sources, or to manage promotions for different channels.
CHALLENGE #2: ONE SERVICE, MULTIPLE CHANNELS
Most customer touch points share a large set of common functionality factors such as product information, product catalog, customer login, checkout, payment, order status, etc. Organizations often end up running each touchpoint on different platforms, on different technology stacks, resulting in a large duplication of services and data. This makes it very challenging to keep the experience consistent across channels.
Recommendation: Build once and reuse as often as you can
When defining your architecture and selecting your eCommerce platform, opt for a micro-services architecture and a platform that can expose commerce services in multiple channels. The best example that comes to mind is that a customer’s cart should be persistent across web, a call center application, mobile, or any other channel for that matter. Architecting an eCommerce platform for a single channel is a missed opportunity. This type of capability will also prove very beneficial to support experimentation and rapid prototyping. Ideally, a single commerce service should only exist once and serve all channels, which makes updates and upgrades much easier.
CHALLENGE #3: ACHIEVING A UNIFIED VIEW OF THE CUSTOMER
In today’s reality, it’s all about the customer, but how much do you really know about them? Most organizations have massive amounts of transaction data likely facing challenges tying it to single customer profile. Beyond transactions, interaction data is of upper importance to understand how customers engaged, whether it be an email, physical interaction, IoT events, etc.
Recommendation: Capture, analyze, personalize
There is enormous value in capturing every single customer interaction. All channels, or all pieces of data are not equally important, but ensure that the most meaningful events are linked to a clean, single customer profile. This is a good example to further illustrate the previous point about system categories. While systems of engagement aim to capture browsing data, social interactions, IoT events, etc., the resulting data is stored an analyzed in systems of intelligence and the summary of all this data, whether it be derived attributes or segmentation is sent to a centralized customer profile, your system of record. Finally, this cycle goes full circle as the digested information is exposed to systems of engagement in order to deliver a personalized experience. Pay special consideration to data flows as, for example, some personalization scenarios work best with real-time data integrations while others work just fine with daily syncs, but no matter what, avoid spreading the same domain data in multiple systems.
CHALLENGE #4: RICH PRODUCT INFORMATION
Many, if not most services and transactions will relate to a product; search, project catalog, product details page (including detailed product attribution), transactions, etc. Maintaining product data quality is a key success factor but grows exponentially in complexity as the number of sources where the data is sourced grows.
Recommendation: Consider a PIM
As quoted in a blog article we recently published "A Discussion on PIM Benefits and Selection Criteria for B2B", Greg Wong, our PIM and MDM expert, product information is the new oil. The business advantages to be gained through rich product information are vast. Your eCommerce platform should be architected as a consumer of product information, served by a system (ideally a PIM) that will ensure it’s complete, unique, timely, valid, accurate and consistent across channels.
CHALLENGE #5: UNIQUE B2B PLATFORM REQUIREMENTS
As much as end-user expectations have similarities with retail, do not underestimate the complexity of requirements which are unique to B2B and cannot be support by B2C focused platforms.
Recommendation: Future proof it
Even if you only plan to deploy basic online selling capabilities first, ensure your platform will allow you to grow and scale. Subscription management, auto-replenishment, credit management, approval workflows are just a few examples of requirements that your eCommerce platform should natively support.
Are you preparing for B2B Digital Transformation?
By Serge Rose
Serge has spent the last decade helping retailers transform digitally, analyzing customer journeys, and building innovative customer-focused technologies. At Thinkwrap, he leads our efforts in helping organizations to better serve their customers digitally.