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E-commerce consultant James Gurd is the author of Econsultancy's new report entitled How to Run a Successful E-commerce ITT which is aimed at e-commerce managers. The report, which will also interest vendors and agencies, goes into great detail about the whole Invitation to Tender process. Here, he answers some questions about the report and what drove him to write it.
What is your own background and what prompted you to write this detailed guide?
My background is in business development in both B2C and B2B. My first management role in e-commerce was at Robert Dyas where I managed the ITT process to re-platform the existing website. I was young, inexperienced and had nobody senior within the business with an e-commerce background who could give me guidance. I learned the hard way and made mistakes.
In hindsight the process was poorly managed; I chose the right partner but scoped the solution badly. It cost me a lot of time rectifying errors and addressing gaps, not to mention eating into my development budget that should have been used for new projects.
Following a stint as head of e-commerce for another retailer, I moved agency side and spent two years helping clients to evolve their web presence as well as being a key part of new business pitches. I’ve experienced myself the challenges that e-commerce managers face, and have also had the benefit of sitting on the other side of the fence.
Having made mistakes and learned sharply, I thought it would be helpful to share my experience and provide the next generation of e-commerce managers with a tried and tested framework for managing the ITT process.
It can be a long and lonely road, so an objective viewpoint can be hugely beneficial and help give them confidence in their own abilities.
Who will benefit most from reading this report?
I don’t think it matters what company you work for – the framework relates to managing an ITT process and it is portable across industries. The report is aimed primarily at e-commerce managers, regardless of their level of seniority.
Even experienced e-commerce managers can benefit from the report; none of us has the monopoly on good ideas so I’m sure they can find something to add to their current experience. Every time I get involved with an ITT, I learn something new. Knowledge building is never a finished process.
The information is as relevant to SMEs as it is to large blue chip organisations, even though the output from the ITT project will vary significantly from company to company.
What other stakeholders is this report relevant for?
The report will also be useful for the sponsors of e-commerce ITT projects, as a reference manual. Not all sponsors come from e-commerce backgrounds but they need to understand the pressures that the project owner will be under throughout the process.
Other people who may benefit are IT managers and project managers; the ITT process demands team work so the more people on the project team who can grasp the basics of this report the better. I would like to include MDs and CEOs but it’s unlikely a CEO will have the time to digest such a detailed report. That’s why they employ e-commerce managers.
What are the most common mistakes companies make during the tender process?
Not taking it seriously enough and failing to dedicate sufficient resource. I’ve had experience of trying to manage an ITT when there is insufficient board level sponsorship; it just doesn’t work because you compromise on quality. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly.
Committing resource can also be problematic. As the e-commerce manager the ITT becomes your raison d’etre; you live and breathe it. However, other project team members might not consider it such a high priority. If their line managers don’t commit their time, you’ll find project timelines are compromised and your stress levels spike sharply.
To what extent do you think that organizations go through a well thought-out ITT, rather than a process which is ad hoc?
I’d say that the extent of structured planning depends on the experience of the sponsor and project owner. Whoever has ownership sets the tone for the rest of the project team. I think some companies do it professionally and prioritise the project intelligently. I’ve been lucky to work with some switched-on retailers, helping them with their ITT.
However, in my experience, there are just as many that don’t know how to go about the ITT process. This is evidenced by the poor documentation I’ve seen submitted to prospective agencies.
Some e-commerce managers (like me at Robert Dyas) are too inexperienced to take on the responsibility and if they don’t have a board level sponsor with e-commerce experience, the project is poorly conceived.
It’s not unheard of for the owner of a small business to demand a new website and adversely influence the ITT based on their personal perception of what e-commerce means to the brand.
That’s not meant to sound patronising but I’ve seen successful business people ruin e-commerce projects because they are too close to their brand to step back and objectively understand the intricacies of an e-commerce platform.
One business owner gave me an ear-full because they didn’t like the presentation quality from a supplier I recommended to be involved in the ITT process; it was because they hadn’t mocked up nice web page concepts like the owner’s preferred agency, even though the technology stack was ideal for the e-commerce requirements and a better fit than the preferred agency. Personal opinion came in the way of objective comparison.
How much of the process is simply about good old-fashioned project management?
Quite a lot. You have to use PM skills to ensure the project is effectively managed and delivered on time. In the report I describe the PM skills that e-commerce managers need to display. When resource permits and if the project is complex enough to justify, it may be prudent to appoint an experienced PM to support the e-commerce Manager.
Are there any other common pitfalls e-commerce managers need to be aware of?
So many pitfalls, so little time. I don’t want that to sound ominous but you have to appreciate how demanding an ITT process can be. It’s not something you can just fit around your existing workload. It has to be properly thought through and prioritised.
I think the biggest mistake that e-commerce managers make is to underestimate the complexity of the project by not involving the right people during the planning and discovery phase. For example, I worked with a major retailer who drop-shipped products direct from third party suppliers, so data management was essential.
They hadn’t thought to involve any of the suppliers so the ITT would have delivered a new e-commerce platform that couldn’t support third party orders, about 15% of their direct business. Thankfully they took my advice and a few hours work plugged the gap.
Often the gaps in thinking are the most obvious to the neutral observer. If you are immersed in the detail, you can easily miss simple things. It pays to have a diverse project team to help cover as many bases as possible.
What can e-commerce platform vendors and agencies learn from this report?
I hope that the takeaway learning is that the e-commerce ITT process should be taken as seriously as any other major business investment project.
Vendors and agencies should appreciate the pressure that e-commerce managers are under and ensure they provide an account manager who is suited culturally to the client so that the right support is there from the start. Delivering a high quality e-commerce platform is more than technology; it demands intelligent relationship building and the ability to immerse yourself in your client’s brand and customer experience.
In fact, technology is increasingly becoming a hygiene factor and it’s the ability to differentiate through value-added services that stands out.
Do the same principles apply internationally?
Yes I think so though this isn’t my specialty as my experience is mainly focused in the UK market. Having worked on e-commerce projects that cater for multiple European markets, I think the principles for good project management are broadly universal, though the delivery may vary based on the unique demands of local countries and regulations. (Editor's note: see also Econsultancy's Internationalisation of E-commerce Best Practice Guide)
Any other horror stories you'd like to share?
I don’t want to scare the next generation of e-commerce managers. Things often go wrong; it’s good to understand the reality. No ITT project ever goes 100% perfectly to plan, though I’d love to hear of one that does. You always discover something along the way that either confounds your thinking or makes you adapt your approach. But that’s life; we have to adapt to survive.
I think the key learning for an e-commerce manager is this: if you don’t take proper ownership of your ITT, you’ll only have yourself to blame when the e-commerce solution doesn’t satisfy your goals and your manager starts putting the pressure on. There is no need to be intimidated; it can be an immensely rewarding process but appreciate how much effort you have to put in to get the rewards.