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Why is it that so much effort goes into selecting a platform vendor for an e-commerce website, yet often so little into maintaining the partnership and ensuring service delivery is to the highest standards?

This blog looks at five common errors that I've seen made frequently by e-commerce teams, usually down to lack of commercial experience in managing complex partnerships.

I'd be lying if I said I hadn't made similar mistakes back in my client-side days, and I'm sure I've been guilty of some account management indiscretions when agency side.

The wonderful thing is you learn more from your mistakes. I'm hoping that by sharing this insight I can help you avoid or at least mitigate the risk of making such mistakes.

The financial viability of a platform depends to a great extent on the e-commerce team’s continued focus on delivering value for money. Value for money depends on many factors, including:

  • Cost of service provision.
  • Quality of service provision.
  • Speed of delivery.
  • Efficiency of delivery.
  • Consistency of service provision.
  • Opportunity cost of investment.

I’m sure you could add different components of value for money based on your own experiences.

This month I’m looking at five key pressure points in Client/Agency relationships that can adversely affect value outputs, considering how they come about and how Heads of e-commerce can relieve the pressure using proven relationship management techniques.

This is not intended as a dig at anyone. There are a lot of wonderful agencies out there, as well as some more mercenary, and many talented e-commerce Managers with great vision.

However, I've seen these problems in many organisations. The biggest issue is often a lack of focus on the relationship. Like a marriage, a successful Client/Agency relationship is a two-way street and both partners need to work together.

They may not always agree, indeed there may be conflict, but a shared vision and goal helps navigate rough waters.

1. SLAs: taking your eye off the ball

In some e-commerce projects not enough time is taken to define and agree support & hosting SLAs. In others, the detail is done but in the heat of everyday work, this detail is forgotten and the requirements overlooked in the quest to deliver.

Both are avoidable and often costly mistakes.

First, you must set out clear SLAs against which both parties must deliver to satisfy their part of the Faustian pact. SLAs set expectations and frame the partnership, so put the right focus into this part of the project planning to protect your business in the future.

It’s important that you review service delivery against committed SLAs every month. It’s not about punishing the service provider; it’s about ensuring you don’t end up 12 months down the line with a huge mismatch between expectation and reality.  And sometimes the SLAs need to be redrawn. Business needs evolve.

If a SLA is slipping (e.g. response to non-critical support incidents within 24 hours) then ask why. Don’t accept it. Mistakes happen but if you’re on the ball, your Account Manager will know they need to up their game and ensure a consistent quality of delivery.

And don’t forget your end of the bargain. Where there are requirements on your team defined in the SLA, make sure these are well communicated and understood.

A common example is the information required when briefing new support and development tasks – pay attention to what is asked of you. There is a reason for the detail – without it, how can you expect the development team to accurately assess requirements? I’ve seen plenty of examples of poor delivery as a result of poor requirements definition.

It’s a case of you get out what you put in. Before raising new tasks, think carefully about what you really need and be as precise as possible in defining it.

Don’t let being busy serve as an excuse for poor quality management.

2. Losing focus on Account Management support when work is manic

The relationship between the e-commerce manager and the account manager is sacrosanct. Yes, Board level sponsorship is essential, but it’s in the day-to-day detail that the partnership is made or lost. A few pointers:

  • Make sure your Account Management service is clearly defined. What do you pay extra for, what is included in the overall service agreements?
  • Insist on a dedicated AM. Don’t allow yourself to be prostituted around because the consistency of support will suffer.
  • If the AM has to change, ensure there is a proper, detailed handover process so that you don’t have to start from scratch again.
  • Insist on an AM who has commercial e-commerce knowledge. You need someone who ‘gets’ what you’re doing and why, who can be proactive in helping you deliver projects and who challenges you (in a nice way).
  • Set clear expectations regarding regular communication - tactical reviews, strategic reviews, day-to-day exchanges etc.
  • Escalate if you are not being listened to. That’s what escalation paths are for.
  • Don’t be frightened to speak out if you think your AM doesn’t have a genuine energy to help you make your website flourish.

To get the most from your AM you need to understand what pressures they are under.

Their Directors will be pushing them to make the account profitable and manage your expectations, so that they have a happy Client.

The more you help them to look good internally, the more they are going to bend over backwards to help you (the caveat being that some people just don’t care and you need to weed them out asap).

So a few dos and don’ts:

  • Don’t ignore invoices. If you’re not happy about a charge, query it immediately and explain why, don’t hide behind your Accounts department.
  • Do provide as much relevant information as possible when requesting new work.
  • Do put your hands up when you’ve cocked-up. Don’t try and use the AM as a patsy.
  • Don’t expect them to do all the work. You should help them to help you.
  • Don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes. If something doesn’t stack up, query it and don’t let it go.
  • Don’t sign off work that isn’t to spec or required quality. Once signed off, your recompense is weakened.

A broken relationship is usually impossible to recover. However, addressing concerns as and when they arise is prudent.

Conflict is inevitable, as sometimes the commercial requirements of the platform provider will be at odds with your own. How you handle and resolve it determines the degree of long-term love in the relationship.

3. Not scrutinising every penny spent

You should treat your budget as your personal bank account, not as a Politician’s expense account. It’s not free money.

Every month you need to pick apart each invoice: support, hosting & development. Relate back to your SLAs and identify any erroneous or excessive charges. For example, if the hosting agreement guarantees an uptime and includes penalties if not met, make sure those penalties are honoured. But be fair. Nobody likes a selfish scrooge.

Platform providers are there to make money. It’s a business. But so are you. And if you are paying more than you should, or your cost base is out of control, you need to rein it in quickly and expediently.

Hard commercial discussions are part and parcel of the Client/Agency relationship so don’t shirk them. They don’t have to be confrontational, just focus on being constructive and achieving what you need. Start with a target higher than you are willing to accept, negotiate and find an acceptable compromise.

Most importantly don’t be pedantic. Quibbling over a few pounds may do more damage to the relationship than the relative saving. And it might persuade the provider to recoup the money (and more) via other means.

Hiding lost revenue in new projects (higher estimations that required, more project management etc) is not unknown. Oops is the cat out the bag? Being petty encourages a petty response. 

I think an element of OCD is advisable with cost management. The more you spend on value-add projects and the less on noise, the greater the potential to drive revenue and create a bigger pot for re-investment in the next financial year. Your platform provider needs to buy-in to the long-term picture, not just see you as a short-term cash cow.

4. Accepting technical solutions/explanations at face value

I’ll start by saying I generally love developers. They are usually incredibly excitable people who love to find solutions to technical problems. Coding and making something work gives them satisfaction.

However, they aren’t always the most commercially minded. That’s not meant to be patronising; their core skills aren’t in thinking about what is the most feasible solution that ticks customer & business requirements whilst minimising cost of delivery. In the same way you wouldn’t ask me to code your site unless you wanted to burn money for no reason.

If you’re not technically gifted, make sure you understand the basics of how the platform works. Only then can you challenge the technical solutions being proposed.

If something sounds excessive, over complicated and/or confusing, politely challenge it. Ask questions. Probe the developers to make sure they’ve really understood the need and matched the best solution.

Push your AM to get the right focus from their dev team and to sense check responses before they reach you. Each response you receive should be professional and clear.

5. Not casting the net amongst other clients to rationalise service delivery

A good idea is to build relationships with the heads of e-commerce at other clients of the platform vendor. If you have a technical conundrum, give them a shout and see if they’ve been there and got the t-shirt.

A good platform provider that is confident in the quality of its services will welcome the interactivity between clients. Those with something to hide may be less pleased. Don’t be secretive, as you wouldn’t want them to be, but you don’t need permission to talk.

This can be invaluable when defining needs for a new project – others businesses may already have been through the pain and learned how best to adapt the platform to support the business requirements. Don’t be shy to ask, provided you’re willing for some quid pro quo if they come knocking on your door in the future.

It can also be a goldmine when scrutinising your cost base. If another client has a similar scale platform, compare and contrast. By doing this you can put yourself in a stronger bargaining positioning.

Be careful though. You need to trust who you talk to before disclosing information. You certainly don’t want to tell a competitor about a wonderful new development if they can then copy the idea and kill the competitive advantage. Your Board would spit bricks.

What do you consider the success factors for this relationship?

My list is by no means exhaustive; it would take War and Peace to fully dissect the complexities of this type of relationship. Hopefully I’ve identified the most common pressures and helped you understand what to look out for.

From your experience, does my blog hit the mark? Have you come across these pressures before? What other pressures have you experienced that you feel I should have discussed?

I’d be interested to hear from you and hear what you think are the most important factors for heads of e-commerce to keep front of mind when working with service providers.

James Gurd

Published 24 May, 2012 by James Gurd

James Gurd is Owner of Digital Juggler, an ecommerce and digital marketing consultancy, and a contributor to Econsultancy.He can be found on on Twitter,  LinkedIn and Google+.

49 more posts from this author

Comments (6)

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Mark Bolitho, New Business Director - Ecommerce at more2

Hi James

Great post - one of my favourite subjects.

I think your Point 4 above is actually pretty central to everything, not just from a technological point of view per se, but one of general tuning in to the services being provided.

In my experience ecommerce managers/heads of ecommerce are predominantly rooted in either tech or marketing and, thus, will have less of an understanding of issues in their non-specialist discipline/s.

I'm not entirely sure as to the format and content of the MSc in Internet Retailing but I'd hope that the premise of your post would form a part thereof.

Good work - Mark.

over 4 years ago

Albie Attias

Albie Attias, Ecommerce Director at King of Servers Ltd

Some good points in there James. Misaligned expectations around platform roadmaps can also present a bone of contention in my experience.

Forthcoming features are pitched during the sales process that later fail to materialise once the client has signed up, often because priorities have changed or the provider is swamped with other development work. New platform features are often fuelled by client feedback and on shared platforms, deployed to all clients. Depending on the provider's client mix, this can create competitive advantage issues as you touched on in the article.

I think the key is clarity in communication both prior to sign up and on an ongoing basis thereafter.

over 4 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Evening all,

Thanks for the comments.

Mark - essentially a Head of E-Commerce should ideally be a generalist, not a specialist. Perhaps they have a specialist background but you can't manage a complex channel without understanding how all the touch points combine at a strategic level.

Albie - yep communication is hugely important. It really doesn't matter how good you are if you can't get it across and poor communication skills mean decision are made ineffectively. And communication is a two way street - both sides have to work at it and help each other. That's why I encourage clients and agencies to think in terms of partnership, not just relationship.

Thanks
james

over 4 years ago

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Mark Bolitho, New Business Director - Ecommerce at more2

Hi James
Yep, completely agree - I think the proliferation of touch points demand that is the case now, although I'm not sure a generalist can truly tune in to tech stuff.

I think a key consideration is to ensure a retailer's team compliments that of the provider. A business may choose a very technical agency because it has little of no tech know-how, but won't enjoy communication based solely around tech-speak.

I think detailed technical explanations should really only be given in situations where a) it's a part of a specification for a feature request, b) the retailer is interested in, or specifically asks about the tech behind a new platform upgrade or feature update, or c) the retailer/ecommerce manager will understand.

In the first example I'd sincerely hope that a technical explanation was secondary to an unambiguous plain English description of the feature in question (as per your ITT doc).

Most of the developers I know are pretty good communicators actually - I think it's an important aspect of their job to do so. But I think there's a tendency for some vendors and agencies to try to 'blind with science' and impart value through detailed technical explanation. As you rightly point out, the ecommerce manager is far more concerned about ensuring they get what they've paid for and how that then translates in to improved profits or processes.

As such, they should take care to ask for translations where necessary!

over 4 years ago

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Neira Jones

Hi James,
Great post, but I think security should definitely be in your list of top items... See http://neirajones.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/close-encounters-of-third-party-kind.html

Kind regards,
Neira

over 4 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Neira,

Thanks for the comment.

I agree that tech platform security is critical. However, that's not a top-level relationship management consideration, which is the focus of my post. The goal of this blog is to discuss some of the common challenges/issues that E-commerce teams face in the day-to-day relationship with their service provider(s).

Security planning & requirements definition must be done in the project discovery and solution specification phase, prior to the launch. And then ensuring that security levels are maintained should be part of the ongoing review cycle - using monitoring tools to create alerts that then prompt discussion. Or strategic reviews when industry regulation and data standards change.

There are hundreds/thousands of potential components for a high quality tech solution, of which security is a critical one. Relationship management is part of the commercial support and delivery.

Thanks for the link to your blog.

Thanks
james

about 4 years ago

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