Why there's so much more to successful eCommerce than building websites!

Aran Reeks
By Aran Reeks
1 Nov 2013

Are you just about to launch a new eCommerce website? In all probability, whether or not it’s going to be a success has already been determined. In fact it was determined long before the developer wrote a single line of code. Don’t get me wrong, the way your eCommerce site is developed is crucial but there’s a lot that needs to be in place prior to this.

Ask me about the characteristics of a successful eCommerce website and I’ll probably give you the answer to a slightly different question. What I’d probably talk about are the characteristics of a successful development process that will result in a profitable eCommerce site.

Why the distinction? Well too many people see an online shop in isolation whereas it’s actually an integral part of your business and just one component of a broader marketing strategy. If the business model or marketing strategy is fundamentally flawed or not understood by the developer, the chances of your eCommerce site having the impact on your bottom line that it should are really limited.

So question number 1 is this: How much time and effort did your eCommerce agency spend investigating your business before they even gave you a quotation? 

Did they take the trouble to fully understand your business model, your target customers and your business objectives? Did they make sure they were absolutely clear about how the online shop fits into a bigger strategy of awareness raising, lead generation and conversion? Or did they just offer to build the website you asked them for, at a standard price, to display and sell your products?

Once everything that your eCommerce site has to contribute to your business is understood and agreed, this information has to be turned into a specification. This means you are clear about what you will get for your money and the development team is clear about the design, functionality and business objectives that need to be met.

Which brings me to question number 2: How detailed was the specification that was produced for your site?

Could you read it and understand exactly what sort of eCommerce site you were going to end up with? Could you see clearly how that fitted with your marketing strategy and business development objectives? Or did you just get a few screen mock-ups and a description of how each page was supposed to work? Were there priorities established for the user experience and a clear understanding of where visitors would come from and how they would move through the site?

A well-planned customer journey makes the difference between a site that’s a pleasure to use and one that people find awkward and unfriendly.  And, as we know, sites that are difficult to use or where navigation is unclear or illogical suffer from low conversion rates.

If you can’t see at the specification stage what sort of experience users will get, it can be difficult and costly to change it later. Sketchy specification processes almost always lay the foundations of disappointment. Getting your potential web designers to create wireframes can help give an idea of the experiance being offered, they don't need to be extremely detailed; here are a couple of examples from one of our recent sites:

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Question number 3 might surprise you, but it’s this: Did the eCommerce agency qualify you as a customer?

You might think that businesses would want all of the customers they can get but, in reality, a good eCommerce development company might decide that a particular business isn’t a good fit.  We wouldn’t take on a client if we didn’t sincerely believe that we could generate an acceptable return on their investment.  Similarly if we thought that it might be difficult to develop the close and open working relationships that are needed for long term success in eCommerce we would be brave enough to say that we weren’t the right developer.

Good eCommerce businesses also look at the commitment from their clients. Efficient and proactive project management is needed on both sides to ensure there is shared ownership of decisions and deadlines. Any business that says you can have minimal involvement in the development of your eCommerce website is probably selling you their solution rather than creating your solution. Similarly we’d be reluctant to compromise the effectiveness of the finished product by working with a client that wanted to have minimal involvement.

Which leads to the final question: Is delivery of the eCommerce site where it all ends, or is it another step in a longer-term process?

Consider two facts: one, however effective the site is at launch it can always be modified to improve conversion rates; and two, your marketing strategy is not fixed.  If you want a good long-term ROI then your eCommerce developer must be fully integrated into your marketing strategy and objectives – the site has to evolve with your business and you need a close working relationship to make this happen. If this isn’t a priority for your developer you should question their commitment to your long-term business success.

The warning signs

Here are a few characteristics to watch out for. If you’re talking to a development company that exhibits any of these traits you might want, at least, to get a second opinion:

  • Superficial specifications. Ask about the specification process and whether you can see examples or templates. If you’re not confident about what you see or hear, this might be a good time to walk away.
  • Developers who start talking about their solution before they’ve taken the trouble to really understand your business and your objectives.
  • Sales people who spend more time speaking than listening - more effort trying sell to you than to understand what you want to achieve.
  • Any business that says they will build you an eCommerce site without first asking whether you really need one and why you need one.
  • Businesses that can’t give you sensible answers (that you can understand) about technical issues such as M-Commerce, responsive design, SEO, S-Commerce, payment gateways and, above all, practical strategies for maximising conversion rates.

The final and fundamental one to watch out for is anyone who tells you that eCommerce is easy and all about building online stores.