B2B businesses need an online presence now more than ever.
Amazon Business has become a major player in the B2B arena and, their business to business selling and purchasing marketplace is making it much harder for companies to operate as a singular supplier.
When it comes to B2B buyer expectations, they are becoming more demanding which means B2B organizations have to work that much harder for a competitive advantage. Buyers are consumers and they want self-service options that fit with their “24/7 anywhere on any device” habits. In short, the same omni-channel experience they are accustomed to in their B2C purchase experience is also expected in their B2B transactions.
Internally, the work-place is rapidly changing. Older workers are passing the baton to digital-first Millennials who increasingly want to conduct all business online. These tech-savvy buyers turn to the Internet first for products, pricing, and to help them make decisions before even contacting their salesperson.
So when the day comes, if it hasn’t already, that your boss walks into your office and says, “We need a new website.”, this little eBook can be your guide to getting started with building a B2B e-commerce website, choosing the best platform and deciding on development partners that will help you achieve your online goals.
The opinion expressed in this e-book are my own and do not reflect the beliefs or opinions of any particular person or organizations that I am now or have been associated with in the past. The information, stories, examples, and use-cases presented here have been extrapolated from my years of experience building and developing B2B and B2C websites along with various events and situations that have occurred throughout my career. This e-book is not intended to represent the circumstances or conditions of any particular organization or company.
Insight from the Author:
When my boss first came into my office, I wasn’t surprised he was about to drop the “We need a new website” bomb. Things were gearing up in our organization towards establishing an e-commerce channel.
The company operated as a traditional B2B business, producing yearly printed catalogs with an outside sales team who called on customers. My boss could see an increase in the number of requests from customers for us to have more of an online presence and provide them with an alternate method to buy and conduct business with us. Most notably, they did not want to wait for printed information to learn about new products.
The first thing that ran through my mind when I heard the words “new website project” were “OMG this is going to be big”. I knew I was going to be responsible for not only reshaping the organization’s standards and business practices, but setting up a new business channel that would push this organization into a new era of business and technology.
Being fairly new to the company, this request would be a huge challenge. I had to be brutally honest with myself and ask, “how can I get this website up and running?”. The first thing I needed was to put together a plan. Before I could tackle my boss’s request, I needed to start by managing his and the organization’s expectations and get a few questions answered:
• What type of website does the organization want to build; an e-commerce channel or an online business unit?
• What’s the timeframe to start and launch the website; is there time to plan and develop or is this a project we needed done yesterday?
• Is there room in the budget for a whole new website or is this going to be a start-up project that just gets our foot into the digital playing field?
Once my boss left my office, I took a deep breath and I told myself, “Don’t panic Carla, you got this.”
I started this project with evaluating my options for a B2B website. I wanted to get clarification from my boss and key members in the organization on the type of website we wanted to have first. Did we want to build a traditional e-commerce website that could just handle transactions or were we developing an enterprise website that could support our internal business rules and processes?
Getting a clear idea of what the company had in mind and an understanding of which business rules they felt were important to incorporate gave me an idea of how complex this website might become. I knew once I got further into the project, more questions and ideas would spring up and the scope could change however, getting a feel for the direction the company wanted to go helped me in my early planning process.
Chapter 1: Start With a Plan
There are significant differences in developing a traditional e-commerce website vs. an online business unit website (also known as an enterprise website). Both types of websites have different outcomes and produce different user-experiences.
A lot of B2B companies start with creating a conventional e-commerce website. This means your customers will be able to place orders online through a basic transactional B2B store. It is a simple, uncomplicated endeavor with a straight-forward buyer-to-seller experience with a focus on mainly order fulfillment with minimal online customer support services.
This type of website is based on the idea that B2B buyers have limited time to spend on a website, assuming buyers only want to access the website to purchase and leave. This old way of thinking has limited suppliers in the past from providing customers with an online presence that can help them do their job better.
Therein lies the need for an online business unit. An online business unit converts complex business practices and services into online feature services like:
• RFP (request for quote) services
• Vendor direct product and services
• EDI or bulk order ordering
• User-account management
• Customer service features (such as online returns)
• Inventory allocation management
• Custom, contract and matrix pricing
• Financial account services (bill pay)
Transferring multifaceted business practices from the physical world to the digital world is a business decision that requires forethought because development is usually elaborate and can be potentially problematic. The value of sites like these however give buyers the convenience they want and the flexibility to use the website as an extension of their internal systems.
Establishing an initial plan can help you set priorities and provide direction for your project. In these early stages, it is essential to set expectations and get a clear understanding of the scope of the project.
Other important considerations in the initial planning stage are:
• Hire additional human resources:
Depending on the direction the company chooses to take with the website, you may need to hire extra support or you may need to adjust your other obligations to make room for this new project.
• Attend training, conferences, or workshops:
You may want to familiarize yourself with potential platforms or new technology that you may want to incorporate within the website.
• Setup regular meeting updates:
You may want to meet with your boss, leadership team, or key stakeholders often about any concerns that may arise or potential roadblocks that may need their support to be avoided.
• Identify discussion points you can call on with your boss, leadership team, or key stakeholders of concerns that may arise to help you avoid potential roadblocks that could come up later.
Create an Initial Timeline
The timeline for building a B2B website can range from as little as six months or as long as 2+ years. The more sophisticated the features or business rules incorporated into a site the longer it might take to scope out the tasks or code the website.
There are a variety of development methodologies or processes such as are waterfall, agile, spiral, or RAD (rapid application development) that can be used to design, build and launch a website, all of which are dependent on what you and your development partners are comfortable deploying.
Each different method can affect the time it takes to complete the website. No matter what process you choose, a web development lifecycle can consist of up to six phases that can take days, weeks, or even months to complete. These phases can include:
• Discovery phase (2 weeks to 3 months):
This is the most overlooked step in developing a website. The discovery process is sometimes combined with writing the requirements, which can cause scope creep later on when ideas and actual tasks become unclear as to what to develop.
Don’t skip this phase, instead use it to work out what should be included in the website. It can also be a time to start researching platforms, considering development partners and determining an estimated budget. For new sites that do not have a clear plan or direction, this phase can include customer and internal focus groups as well as in-person interviews and surveys.
• Requirements phase (3 months to 1 year):
Many projects jump right to building the website and forget the necessity of gathering and writing requirements. Even though this stage can be the hardest and longest phase of any website project, it is an essential step in building a website. Nailing down and writing the functional and system requirements will require research and planning, which is usually outlined during the discovery phase. Think of it as the discovery phase giving you the ‘what and why’ and the requirements phase giving you the ‘how’. It defines how the site will flow, how particular features will operate and how internal systems will be integrated.
These are also the documents that the developers will use to code the website. If you are proficient in writing technical requirements then your involvement may be required in this phase. Needless to say, the majority of the requirements will be defined and written throughout the project lifecycle by your development partners.
• Development phase (3 months to 8 months):
This phase is what I call your quiet phase. It is when the developers begin coding the website. Don’t get me wrong; there will be plenty for you to do during this phase. On the contrary, there are several development responsibilities you will be required to handle. Your interaction with the developers will just come in sprints. However, this phase is mainly for the developers as it is their time to build the website without interference.
• Testing phase (3 weeks to 2 months):
This can be the most intensive phase within your development life cycle. Being close to the end of the project can create anxiety that anything and everything can, and will go wrong. A way to alleviate that anxiety is to make sure you’re covering all types of testing techniques during this step of the project. Without going into too much detail, the different types of testing are application, site functionality, usability, UI /UX and security.
• Deployment phase (1 week to 1.5 months):
Deploying a website means it is ready to be converted to the production environment, redirected to the primary domain, and launched to the public. This step includes any last-minute checks and corrections as well as testing and implementation of analytics. Redirecting the site and waiting for the domain to be activated can also take time.
The deployment phase as a whole can be broken up into a pre-launch (beta) and an actual launch phase. It is good practice to launch your website in a beta test phase first, even for a few months to a select group of customers who can try and test the site before traffic is actively driven to the domain.
When it comes to your timeline:
• Count on incidents within your organization that can cause the timeline to slip. Indecision or wavering corporate buy-in can extend a website deadline.
• As you progress through the website project, expectations to push the schedule sooner can come up as a result of pressure from customers and stakeholders.
• Don’t let a reasonable website project turn into a rush job or a “just put something up that can take orders” kind of site.
These are all great examples of why having a solid, referenceable framework from your discovery and requirements phases can keep everyone focused on the priorities of the project.
Chapter 2: Discovering Key Milestones
During the website development lifecycle, you will need to mark milestones to indicate progress. Major milestones that should be identified on your production calendar are:
• Committee meetings
• Contracts due or approved or signed
• Front-end landing page art due or approved
• Wireframe review or approved
• Written requirement due or approved
• Coding start date
• Content completed or ready to populate
• Production server ready to deploy
• Platform testing
• Site launch date
Overall, set an “as firm as you can” launch date and work backward from there. Your boss or leadership team may want to see tangible progress so, make sure you add in major phases and key tasks to work towards in your timeline.
Keep in mind, milestones can overlap and that’s okay, it’s better than taking shortcuts at any point in the website project. Skipping tasks or pushing progress too fast can lead to code error, causing problems later on or a bad user-experience.
Insight from the Author:
On one of my prior website projects, my team and I were tasked with building a website. Three months in, the chairman announced. “I want to have the site ready for our company’s annual trade show convention.” The trade show was less than two months away, and we had barely started development.
Needless to say, my team and I laughed. This was so unexpected. When we started the project, there were no significant events outlined on the timetable. The website was a traditional commerce site and there was very little integration needed however, the front-end design and site features were robust.
After investigating further, I found out the Chairman actually intended for the website to be a demo for potential customers. My team and I felt confident we could pull off a website prototype for the event but, having all the data and features fully functional was going to be a stretch. I also had a hunch that additional requests would be coming after the show.
In the end, we pushed some non-essential features to later phases, which enabled us to deliver the site in a “Beta” test mode for the trade show. We then rolled out the launch of the website a few months later. Knowing up-front the site’s actual launch date, we could have been prepared and had more of the site functionality ready, giving new site users an even better experience.
A guide to key milestones:
• It is important to cross-reference your timeline with the company’s business calendar.
• Identify corporate events that could potentially impact your time frame right out of the gate.
• Check whether the organization wants to showcase the website at the next tradeshow or if your boss needs to present a working demo of the site at the next board meeting. Such unexpected events can cause your website project to be either held up or accelerated.
• Work with your boss (weekly) and your committee (every three weeks) on which KPIs are important.
• Try to plan out what you want to achieve or possibly present for an expected special event.
• Determine if a prototype is needed.
Insight from the Author:
Before I got too far down the rabbit hole with starting this project, I went back to my boss’s office and drop the budget bomb on him. I said, “Remember when you came into my office and dropped this new website bomb on me; Now it’s my turn, I need a budget.”
Luckily my boss was agreeable to the budget plan I proposed and could work with. Doing an initial budget as well as explaining how much money I might need saved me later when I began requesting the actual funds. There was very little objection to my spending when it was time to sign contracts because I had already justified costs and identified several unforeseen expenses.
Plan an Initial Budget
You can’t build a B2B website without money. A new website project could cost anywhere from $200,000 (USD) to upwards of $1 million+ (USD) depending upon the site’s complexity. Unfortunately, the willingness to want a website does not always guarantee that funding will be available. Knowing your budget as well as getting an understanding of the dollar amount your organization is willing to commit will be a major factor when it comes to choosing a commerce platform and development partner.
A website project can run over multiple yearly budgets which could lead to management questioning the commitment to the overall amount if there are roadblocks or unclear requirements. Make sure you lock in your initial budget and work with your organization to provide an idea of what the website costs could be long term.
Include in your budget cost for:
• The need for additional human resources
• Potential training, conferences, and workshops
• Vendor and customer meetings and travel costs
• Consultants and support contracts
• Potential scope creep and change fees
Once you’ve decided on a platform that fits your business needs, a development team that can build the site within your time frame, and a few mock-ups to show how the website will look and feel, it’s time to return to your boss’s office with actual costs and contracts to sign. Once you get approval—and let’s hope you get the bigger budget—it’s time to bring in your team and get started.
Tips for a successful budget conversation:
• Plan everything up to this point to help you give everyone a firm idea of the cost to complete the website.
• Give your organization options. Have a plan A, B, and C ready to go. Think of it as good, better, and best and be clear on which one you recommend.
• Identify features that can be omitted or moved to a later development phase to support those other options.
• Be prepared to have a frank and honest conversation with your boss, finance, or leadership team about the budget and determine where they see the website heading and how much they really want to spend on it. Find out early if they are willing to go big or go home.
Chapter 3: Establishing an Internal Committee
Building a new website can impact several departments within the company. You will need support from members in your organization that aren’t familiar to you. Involve team members like the finance people—especially the controller— who can tell you about legalities, security, and compliance and the credit folks who can help with onboarding customers.
Often internal skirmishes between departments can cause a project to stall and pulling other departments in on a project that could potentially be time-consuming and require a significant investment of their time will be challenging.
Some decisions about the website’s operations, features, and internal support may require discussions and approvals from various department heads. Consider creating an internal committee that includes department decision-makers as well as executives or stakeholders from operations, sales, customer service, marketing, IT, and finance. Often internal skirmishes between departments can cause a project to stall, so include your boss and a leadership person who can make any final decisions. That person should be the one who can understand and act on issues that could impact the entire company’s business rules and processes as well as work with you to set project priorities and team objectives.
Use the committee to:
• Make sense of business rules that may have been in place since the start of the company
• Establish new regulations that support business change
• Approve ideas and finalize changes
• Assign department tasks and to set priorities
• Proofread and test the website
Insight from the Author:
After my boss told me we needed a new website, I was resolved to take on the challenge and rally key team members from various departments to assist in the website initiative. I knew things could come up that might involve other departments.
There would be support needed from operations to better understand the business rules that would ultimately turn into requirements. I wanted IT’s help to uncover challenges with extracting data from internal systems. The credit and finance department’s assistance would also be essential in determining how to handle customer account information. I needed to establish an internal committee that included these teams and sales and customer service.
My boss, the President of the company, was gung-ho about the project but to succeed internally, this project had to become a company-driven focus. Since this was his initiative, I asked him how he would help push the website forward. Was he going to pave the way when I ran out of road? Meaning, will he be able to help affirm priorities among the other departments when there are conflicting objectives? Would he be the champion, aka George Washington, and lead us to victory, or would he be the person in the background saying, “You work it out and let me know if I am needed.”?
It was important for me to know whether he would make himself available to assist with getting past internal red tape and roadblocks or if he would be hands-off and just expect us to work cooperatively through the challenges. The conversation with my boss about how important the website will be to the company’s overall business initiatives helped me have confidence when I approached other departments for help.
Having an internal committee in place will go a long way in moving your project forward with minimal conflicts as well as help gain support and commitment from everyone in the organization.
Encourage a high level of teamwork by:
• Making good use of the time your committee is giving you by holding regular update meetings as well as open discussions to ensure that all members are motivated to participate.
• Planning your meetings wisely. Talking about a new website is a great topic, but could require lengthy discussions, most people may be too busy to spend long hours in a meeting.
• Providing lunch or snacks to encourage members to attend or stay longer.
Starting the Digital Journey
Start your digital journey by becoming familiar with the operations of the business. Investigate as much as possible about your customers, shipping and receiving procedures, legal and privacy constraints and products and business workflow. Even if you’ve been working for the organization for years, once you start digging into internal processes you will learn new things.
Conducting customer interviews will show you how they buy and interact with your business, spending time in the warehouse will show you how inventory is pulled and how boxes are loaded and shipped, this especially will show you where bottlenecks occur.
Ask questions about how specific business rules are applied or circumvented. Take time to understand the ordering process, the operations work workflow, and how the organization handles the customer onboarding process. These processes and others will be important to you as you begin to determine which features your website platform should include as you collect and prioritize feedback.
Starting the digital journey will also involve investigating:
• Customer behavior and habits
• Internal and external operations and processes
• Competitor analysis
• Changes in B2B technology
• Trends in B2C commerce
Insight from the Author: Knowing I would be writing the scope and initial requirements that defined the features and functionality of the website, I had to gather as much information as I could about the organization’s operations and processes. This would also help me avoid pitfalls that could affect the development or cause scope creep later.
Therefore, I went on several ride-alongs with the Sales Reps to visit some of their favorite customers. I wanted to inform our customers we were planning a new website and get their feedback on how they felt about ordering with us, what their challenges were, where they felt we could make improvements, and what features and services they thought would be helpful for them online.
I gained a lot of insight talking with our customers which I applied when I began outlining the scope of the website. I was able to determine what features and functionality needed to be included, what was nice to have, and what could wait for a later update.
The Role of the Salesperson
The role of the salesperson is drastically changing as B2B companies begin to embrace digital commerce. In the past, customers would pick up the phone, call their sales rep and say, “I want to place a large order and get five percent off.” Customers, especially long-time customers, have a strong relationship with their Sales Rep so it’s no wonder why the emergence of a new online channel can make the sales team feel threatened.
Sales Reps are important to an organization so try to find ways to incorporate the Rep’s needs into your website. Beyond that, the sales team will be the one working with customers to utilize the site’s features and will be online users and early testers, getting them onboard is essential.
Attend sales meetings. Share what’s going on with the website project. Demonstrate how the website can help them sell more, reduce sales calls and give them freedom to focus on relationship and prospect building.
Sit down with the Sales Directors and their teams asking questions and offer answers to topics like:
• What do you need to be successful in the digital era?
• What tools can the website offer that would make the sales process easier?
• How can we use the website to service customers online?
• How can we easily offer an online incentive or Sales Rep exclusive deals?
Show the Sales Reps the advantages the site can offer and create online tools the Reps can use to close more business, or order samples directly using the web. These benefits will be key to the success, cooperation and early adoption to the website.
Insight from the Author:
I considered it necessary to meet with and gain the support of the Regional Sales Managers. I wanted to find ways in which the new website could support their sales teams, customers, and sales goals. If I had any hope of achieving a better understanding of how customers interact with our company or identify what services I should consider for the web, I needed to understand the role of the salesperson and get the Reps on “team website” from day one.
The Sales Reps would be my most significant marketing funnel, potentially driving customers to the website once it launched. By attending a Sales Meeting I was able to explain the new website project and the company’s digital initiatives. While there were grumbles about the new changes, many Reps were enthusiastic about the new website.
I stayed focused on how the site could benefit them and highlighted site features that could help capture more business. I took the time to learn their techniques for handling internal processes and soon the Reps were becoming my biggest supporter. By being open and forthcoming with the Sales Reps, I was able to win them over to “team website”.
Managing, Understanding and Leveraging Data
Data is everything. It is your website’s asset, operations, and method of understanding the trends on your website. Bad data planning can lead to code errors, site crashes (yes! you can crash a system with garbage characters) and poor user experience. All companies can have messy data but B2B companies especially can have a hard time with data management and governance. Many B2B businesses are just moving to digital, some still haven’t made the leap yet. B2C companies usually have better data practices because their business model depends on it.
There are B2B companies that can be called data dinosaurs because they are just not ready to go online. They may need to build a whole new infrastructure that can work with current and future digital initiatives since that future will be defined by data. Better data means better opportunities. Machine learning and personalization opportunities are all based on data. B2B businesses that want to succeed and grow in a digital domain must begin to make data a priority.
Tackle data on day one. Meet with your IT and system data miners to talk over your data needs, issues, concerns and discuss potential data problems. Confirm who will be responsible for the management, delivery, and support of the data for the website which will help you determine if you need additional resources to help get the data in the format your website platform and developers can work with.
Ask questions and get clear answers to data topics like:
• Is the data in different silos?
• Will the data have to be manually entered or can it be automated?
• Is the data junky? Will additional steps need to be performed before the data can be used?
• What format can I get the data in?
• Do I need additional applications to read data and send data?
• What are the data security issues I need to be aware of?
Having to deal with product exclusions or customers’ complex pricing are data issues and while building a website is one thing, having a system that can adequately handle data is another. How well your website platform manages data will determine how robust your site will be. If your website project requires a lot of data heavy lifting, you may have to consider additional applications, such as a PIM for product catalogs or a webservice for data EDI management.
Insight from the Author:
I had lots of heart-to-heart conversations with my IT and data miners about the data that I would need for the website. We had plans to feed data from the internal system into the website and send specific data back for processing and storage. I sometimes left data meetings feeling defeated, because I couldn’t get a clear picture of how or where the data was coming from.
This was a new website initiative, so raw data in our internal system wasn’t prepared for data transfers. Needless to say, we were heading down a road that had a lot of cleanup on it. I had a feeling data was going to be an ongoing battle, not just our internal data, but the catalog content data was just as challenging. We had thousands of SKUs that needed descriptions, category mapping, and attributes.
Our only saving grace was that we started talking about data issues at the beginning of the project. Luckily, I had support from my Committee members, IT and content writers. I met with the data team daily to head-off any data issues that came up and created data plans and wrote detailed requirements on what type of data was needed and how it was going to be implemented.
Making a Case for Data Integrity, Governance and Compliance
It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that many B2B companies are struggling with data compliance and data integrity issues. More and more data laws and regulations are coming into effect, making it more important than ever for an organization to make data integrity and governance a priority.
Key takeaways when it comes to data:
• Consumer data privacy laws, cookie policies, data tracking as well as State and Federal and corporate compliance regulations will need to be addressed on your website.
• PCI compliance and other serious regulations have legal ramifications that could be levied if data processes and awareness are not handled properly online.
• Consider creating a data committee to help work through data policies and compliance adherence.
• Have a serious conversation with your boss, leadership team, and your corporate legal counsel. There may be a lot of details and tasks to work out both on and offline in order for your company and the website to be in compliance.
Insight from the Author:
One of the first acts I did when I joined the organization was lead the charge for data integrity and awareness. I established what I called “The Data Integrity and Governance Committee”, invited every department manager in the company to be a part of the group, and got several leadership members to become involved as well, including the President and CFO.
It was surprising to learn how much the other departments relied on and consumed unreliable data. Data was being used and reported on by different methods and sources resulting in many inconsistencies in how the data was collected and managed. Data entry processes were not being followed, there were no safeguards in place to protect the integrity of the data, and we discovered that each department had similar data issues and concerns that weren’t being addressed.
In several cases, one department was extracting data that affected another department and there were lots of duplicate data requests. Through the committee, we were able to talk to one another and formulate a strategy to fix our data problems collectivity as well as establish policies that ensured data was being entered and extracted correctly. As a committee, we were better equipped to help the company adhere and enforce data security and compliance regulations and work cooperatively to prioritize immediate data related concerns and create processes that could benefit every department.
Chapter 4: Choose Your Commerce Platform Wisely
Choosing a B2B e-commerce platform will be the greatest digital decision your organization will make. It will determine the company’s online growth and direction for years to come and decide the long-term partnerships. Choosing a platform will require you to consider which business rules can or can’t be incorporated and if your chosen platform doesn’t have your business solution out-of-the-box know you’ll have to modify the code a lot in order to make it work.
You also must have an idea of your future needs. If the platform doesn’t fit what you think you will need 2-3 years down the road it may not be as straightforward as to rip and replace or change out the application at a later time.
Overall, there are two types of software platform solutions you can consider.
• Open source: is a free use platform and are heavily developer dependent. Development advancements are supported by the community of individual programmers who contribute to the change and growth of the software. The platform is only as strong as the community that supports it. If no one is adding new ideas or code fixes to the platform it becomes outdated. On the positive side, these platforms are raw and unrestricted so they can be changed or redeveloped to fit your customized needs. When it comes to out of the box features, they may be limited or only developed through community.
• License/SaaS (Software as a Service): is a paid platform. These software application providers can charge a one-time fee or a regularly paid subscription service. Support, updates, and fixes are done by the platform provider. Additional costs or tiered pricing is usually based on the different out-of-box features offered.
There are benefits to choosing either platform option. Open source platforms allow for flexibility and complete customizations and the platform is only limited by your level of development support. There are, in some cases, platforms that offer both an open source and a licensed version. This could be an option for you to try the platform or create a website prototype before investing in the paid version if you are limited by budget or the ability to maintain the platform long-term.
Insight from the Author:
I didn’t have much time to conduct an extensive platform research. I was limited in the types of platforms I could consider based on my budget and requirements constraints. I considered both an open-source and a licensed platform but, I had a mixed bag of “must-have” requirements that quickly steered me toward a licensed system.
I wasn’t keen on using a SaaS (Software as a Service) platform because I wanted the option of hosting the website in-house. I was definite in my desire to find a platform that could integrate well with our internal systems. It helped to know I wanted a system that could be customized and had user-features that could be tailored to fit our unique business rules.
To round out my criteria, platform services and support were essential prerequisites as this was a new website project. I would need help with implementation and setup. I was able to meet with the platform’s technical team to discuss the website details and potential technical challenges. They were extremely helpful in working with me to find workarounds for some features that were limited and capitalize on others that I hadn’t considered. In the end, I chose a platform that fit my major requirements and was built on an infrastructure could grow.
Choose a platform technology that you can grow with your organization now and in the future. Make sure you can easily establish a relationship with your chosen platform provider and their support community.
There are platforms that offer a lot of features, but there is no perfect platform or a platform that has or does it all. Each software application has its own pros and cons that should be evaluated and compared. It helps to create a score card and compare the following attributes which can be used to evaluate a platform:
• Platform solution (Open source, Licensed/SaaS)
• Headless or traditional store-front
• Level of development needed
• Out-of-the-box features
• Technical support services
• Hosting options (on premise or cloud base)
• Content management
• Integration (SAP or other internal systems)
• Versioning and upgrades
Read the potential vendor’s documentation, attend training classes. Don’t worry if you have a hard time understanding or interpreting the technical aspects of the documentation. Make notes and use what you learned to ask questions about how the platform can be incorporated into your requirements and requests demos to see how their features work in action.
Ask for references, check their clients’ website, see how they are using the platform. That will really tell you what the platform is capable of.
The Case for Headless Commerce
“Headless” is today’s digital trend. The data, business logic, and commerce engine are separated (de-coupled) from the front-end storefront. Without getting too technical at this stage, a headless architecture is layered and can include at least three levels:
• Front-end presentation layer: the top layer that can include CMS, custom storefronts, apps, chatbots, kiosks, Alexa, etc).
• API communication (REST API/JSON): the middle layer that ensures API calls take place in an orchestrated fashion.
• Back-end commerce: the bottom layer that includes commerce platform functions like cart, catalog, pricing and promotions, and integration framework to back end systems, e.g. ERP, PIM, CR, etc.
The primary benefit of a headless architecture is the freedom and flexibility to develop as many front-end interfaces as you like on as many different devices as you need without the constraint of the back-end systems. Your front-end developers can extend commerce functionality to any customer touchpoint you can imagine, from multiple websites, mobile apps to the Internet of Things (IoT) as well as devices that do not yet exist. You can also implement headless commerce platform gradually, without ripping and replacing your existing technology investments.
Choosing to go headless will require a really clear plan of action to avoid scope creep due to the flexibility of doing virtually anything you desire. There are more puzzle pieces to fit together as part of the bestof-breed strategy. It requires a different build and implementation schema from a traditional commerce platform. The development process will involve more planning and knowing what you want, which translates to more detailed requirements. Depending on where you are in your ecommerce maturity, the best way to go could be with a starter store that has all basic pre-built integrations and allows you to go live in 30-90 days.
Insight from the Author:
When I began evaluating commerce platforms, I found there were two website architectures I needed to consider: a traditional storefront platform or a headless platform. At the time, I had very little knowledge of what headless was or even how to build a headless website. There was a lot of buzz about this new e-commerce approach to website development. I had also built several traditional multi-store websites in Magento with success, so I was reluctant to build our new website in a platform that requires front-end layers.
Initially, my boss started out by asking me to build a new website but later he approached me about leveraging the site for other revenue opportunities with partner sites and social media. Once the possibilities of digital channels swept through the organization, ideas for expanding into other digital arenas started buzzing, such as creating mobile apps, online pricing guides and remote sales tools. There was talk of creating a second website for specific customer types and specialty products. I even heard whispers of the need to develop a Will Call Center Kiosk.
The one project that I was initially tasked to develop was potentially turning into multiple projects. The project itself was becoming complex with multiple data requirements, multiple points of shopping-cart entries, and customizable features. The organization’s future needs for building a platform that could expand were right in front of me and I was at a crossroads in the project.
I did some research and I found with a headless platform we can leverage an API-first approach. This was something that we were already thinking of since we needed to figure out how we were going to handle pushing and pulling information, such as contract pricing, inventory allocation and availability, and account information from our internal systems. We knew we wanted a better method for handling the product catalog, so we were already looking into integrating a PIM (Product Information Management) system.
With all the different needs and requirements being added to the project, I seriously began considering headless as a viable option for our new website. With the potential to quickly expand to different online channels and to incorporate multiple online assets and opportunities, I have to say “headless sort of chose us.”
Truthfully, B2C commerce is continuously expanding and B2B is catching on. The growth in the areas of digital communication, transactions, and personalization are requiring websites to be more robust and enterprise-ready than ever before. B2B organizations have to incorporate more buyer touchpoints as well as gain the ability to change quickly to respond to buyer’s needs, this means shifting your business strategy to include a fluid online store.
Therefore, chances are good that you may want to consider a headless commerce platform but before you chop off the head of your website project, consider these questions:
• Can you make a case for going headless?: Some companies start with a basic transactional website, which is fine, however if you are considering at least one other digital presence, such as mobile, you have already validated the need to go headless. It’s okay to start small and build multiple heads as you grow but having the infrastructure in place allows you to move quickly. Your upfront cost for development may be high, but adding on independent front ends later will be significantly less than continuously building new websites or adopting a small, cramped traditional platform and later having to tell your boss “sorry, it will be difficult to expand the new platform into a mobile app.”
• What should your headless ecosystem look like?: Each touchpoint has its own unique needs, and your potential ordering channels will continue to expand in the future.
• Which system will own the data?: In a headless website, the front-end is responsible for the presentation layer. This is un-structured data. Will you still pull data from your customer relationship management system (CRM) or from a product information management system (PIM)?
Finding the Right Development Partners
Insight from the Author:
We planned to build the website using a licensed platform and I was reasonably confident I wanted to host the site on-premise as opposed to the cloud. This meant I had to find a new development partner that was familiar with coding in my chosen application and could also build and support the system architecture.
Having worked with several development partners throughout my career both in the U.S and overseas and my own skills as a developer meant I would be heavily involved in the requirement and development process. My worry, was finding an ideal partner I could establish a healthy working relationship with because In the past, my successful track record developing websites was due to my close working relationships with my development teams.
For this project, I was fortunate to meet a few prospective development companies at a tradeshow and received a few recommendations from the platform provider’s preferred vendor list. I was confident the prospective vendor on the list could program the site; however, being able to work well with the team was something I would have to uncover.
I spent weeks conducting several partner interviews, reviewing their portfolios, speaking with their clients and I even met with the owner and project leads several times to get assurances that my project could be delivered within my timeline. I also wanted to confirm, if there were business-related problems, my issues would be resolved quickly.
Before I made my final decision I met with several team members, including the coders, testers, and project analysts to gauge their working style and level of experience working with my chosen platform. In the end, after meeting and discussing my project with everyone involved, I felt confident I picked the right partner.
The platform selection process goes hand-in-hand with choosing a development partner. Before searching for a partner, determine how much development support you will need as some platforms are not as development intensive as others. You may be able to hire a development partner as a consultant, bring on a start-up team with great potential or, use the platform’s service support. Your in-house technical team, if your organization has one, may also be a valid option.
Several factors go into evaluating, selecting, and building a relationship with a development team. The wrong development partner can make the difference between a successful, accomplished website or a developmental mess filled with frustrations that end in a platform with incomplete or wrong requirements.
The evaluation process is not always straightforward and finding a partner that includes the right mix of talented programmers, a suitable management team, and companionable working conditions may take time to find. Comradery is important and makes working together on a lengthy project easy however, your first and foremost decision should be based on their ability to program in your chosen platform. Just as a platform comes in all shapes and sizes, so does a development team.
There are two different types of development partners that you can consider:
• Outside development agency: a development team that offers development as well as various full-online business services.
• Development house: a small group of technical coders. Usually, there is little to no online business services.
Time difference can also play a factor given there is always a choice between U.S. or overseas development partners. Each has their own set of pros and cons. U.S. developers have a higher cost, but there will be less cultural communication and time-zone issues. If you are not technically savvy, using a development house or a partner that is overseas may not be your best choice since you will have to be more involved, travel a greater distance for on-site meetings or have to hire additional technical partners.
An agency can be convenient choice since they often have options and several business support services that can help you with other aspects of your project such as graphic design, UX design, SEO and analytics services.
Before discussing your project with prospective partners, request an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement), which prevents consultants from revealing your private information and in the interview discuss your project scope and the important features you want to include. Discuss requirements writing and the submission process, talk about scope creep and make sure you are clear on their policy around change requests.
Explaining your plans and discussing your behavior will give you an insight into the team’s ability to build your project. Ask questions and get clear answers to topics such as:
• Skills and experience of the programmers: It is important to understand the type of programmers your prospective partner currently employs. Evaluate the skills of the development team, not the company. Just because they have a Java or PHP programmer on their team does not mean they can successfully build your website in your chosen platform or software version. Software based on preparatory code will have restrictions with changing the core application kernel. Determine, if your prospective partner is capable of making major code modifications or just top-level configuration changes. Even with an in-house team you should interview and get familiar with their skills. Make sure that you are not being pushed into using an internal team that cannot complete the project.
• Expertise and professional relationships with your chosen provider: Make sure they have experience in the platform version your site will be built on and see if they are on a list of “Certified Development Partners”. These are development teams the software provider has endorsed. They are teams who are considered experts because they are regularly developing projects in their platform. In some cases, these teams even contribute to the development and enhancements of the platform.
• Meeting and working directly with the team – not just the owners or project manager: You may initially only meet with the owner or the lead project manager or programmer. They may be the front face of the company, but not the ones actually working on your project. Get clarification on who will be on your team and know if they will need to hire a new programmer since new hires can add ramp-up time to your project. Confirm that you are able to talk to and work directly with the programmers and if not, make-arrangements to have “all team meeting” where you can ask questions of the developers.
• Previous work and live client demos: Ask for multiple references and to review an actual working site that was created in your chosen platform. Their previous work will give you a good idea of how sophisticated they are in coding complex websites and give you an idea of the potential opportunities for you with your own website.
Don’t underestimate the value of having a good relationship with a development partner you can rely on considering they may be a partner for you for a long time. You will also undoubtedly receive lots of follow-up calls and pressure to pick a team once you start your search and always be honest, don’t be afraid to let the development partners know why you are or aren’t considering them.
Once you have chosen a partner, be open and honest about the project progress and confront problems or technical issues right away. Frustration with your project or resentment towards the programmers will cause your project to have challenges and you don’t want to wonder six months or a year down the road why you picked this team.
Learn to Speak the Language
If this is your first website project or if you’re not technically adept at working with programmers as an e-commerce professional, you may need to acquire some competencies in web development. Having additional background knowledge in coding, user-experience, web design, online cataloging, SEO ,and web analytics are equally useful in explaining the concepts you want to achieve or the business requirements that must be included in the website. Your definition of something may be very different than the developers. Miscommunication can be costly in terms of project delays, time, and budget.
Talking to developers can be awkward and jumbled and at times it may seem like you and your development team are speaking different languages. Use collaborative applications like Atlassian’s Confluence or Marvel to share and collaborate on the requirements and wireframes. Asking questions or having technical terminology defined will go a long way in making sure you get your project built the way you want it. Work with your development team to employ techniques that will help you understand how your site is being built, such as:
• Use screenshot examples from other websites to explain your ideas.
• Create working interactive wireframes or prototypes to show the site flow and landing page interaction.
Insight from the Author:
Having a technical background and years of experience did not exclude me from having to take training courses on new platforms or learning about new techniques in online development, customization and product merchandising for this project. Implementing a headless platform, implied I had to change the way I interpreted online application development.
Decoupling the front-end required me to learn how to build a site user-experience (UX) design method instead of traditional page layouts structure. Having to re-approach this project from a “newbie” perspective allowed me to learn new techniques and development methods I didn’t know or would not have considered.
In the early stages of the new website project I had a chance to hang out with my team. We chatted about the challenges that could potentially arise during the project and learned each of us had our own ideas on the particular points in the project that could become troubled. Several casted their vote for data related issues and a few remarked on various aspects of the requirements that could be sticking points.
I also took time to sit back and reflect on the situations throughout my career when a project fell apart or became challenging. A few issues came to mind: a conversation gone wrong that resulted in sections of code having to be rewritten, a misinterpreted deadline that resulted in the project being rushed, and some ambiguous tasks not being explained early on that caused costly project changes. In each of these cases poor communication between the team and myself was always present.
Each of us pointed out where we felt we would run into challenging issues. We could all see where communication gaps could lead to our project’s downfall. Having to work with a new development team and a new platform would undoubtedly inherit its own problems so we were resolved to find a way to better communicate this time around.
As the project manager, I knew we needed better interaction and good communication exchange, however I was fairly sure that once the project got rolling, problems could still occur. I remember a previous manager of mine giving me advice early on. He said, “if I wanted a successful project, it started with a successful team and I had to be the catalyst to keep the team together”. He explained how I would have to create an environment that fostered good communication, collaboration and openness.
I adopted a Scrum approach to project management and used it as well as other project framework methodologies in the development aspect of the project. I also felt that some of the Scrum core values of transparency, inspection, and adaptation could apply to my own project management work habits.
I created a list of potential pain points within the requirements, discussed them with my team and made sure to keep it updated when I saw new potential pain points cropping up. I looked for areas where discussion breakdown was occurring and we as a team would call “halt” and discuss those problems right away. We worked together to resolve problems before moving forward, so there was clear agreement and direction.
When I put the focus on giving and receiving good communication and direction, I created an environment that could foster respect and open cooperation among the team at any point in the project. Thus, the team and I found we were able to resolve challenges much quicker.
Expect Challenges Along the Way
Building a new website will have inherent challenges and no matter how hard you try to avoid project snags, except unforeseen problems. Communication breakdowns are a major cause of project failures and projects troubles usually start internally. It is important to establish a game plan for working through problems and make sure the lines of communication within your team are not inhibited by gossip and misinformation. Respectful, transparent communication practices are key.
There will always be pain points in a project but most can be solved through proper project management techniques like:
• Problems with understanding what being requested in the requirements can be solved through the use of wireframes and storyboards to explain your intent or complex features.
• Getting team members to openly discuss issues they are having can be accomplished with daily “standup” or roundtable meetings for everyone to explain significant project tasks or discuss issues early on.
Good communication goes hand in hand with managing expectations. How you manage obstacles with your team will determine if your project will be riddled with stumbling blocks, or progress without issues. Remember, everyone on your team has a vested interest in making the project successful, therefore work through challenges as a team not as soloist.
As a project manager, it is your responsibility to lead by example. Ask probing questions to get the team talking about pain points in the project but also make sure you’re not your own worst enemy. Avoid being the bottleneck, make sure you are managing issues internally that will affect the project or the team and, avoid overwhelming the team with unnecessary nosey politics. You can share as much about internal struggles as you can but only to overcome some issues collectivity
Is “Going Composable” Right For Your Organization?
Change comes at a cost in time / effort & money. And the larger the change, each of those factors are increased. Combining these factors with clear business needs and drivers, go a significant way to helping answer the “going composable” question without extensive analysis.
So if we:
- Have a rapidly changing/competitive market that needs innovative experiences which can be designed in a persona centric way, deployed quickly anyway and use a few common features to help sell (Product). Composable Commerce is a must.
- Are a growing business who today have an ecosystem of open source and simple integrations as we like to control our ecosystem and in the future may change a piece, but must have a cart and payment to sell. Composable Commerce is a must.
- Run our business on a complex set of applications that takes months to change, simply to provide product & inventory updated to our sales reps / buyers and dealers in different experiences quickly. Then it’s time to look at Composable Commerce.
A Composable Commerce application allows an organization to be more flexible and adapt to business change rapidly with less friction, and less risk introduced into the backend environment. Because “Lego bricks” can be swapped in and swapped out for best-of-breed, a composable enterprise can stay perpetually modern without having to endure a rip-and-replace re-platforming or full-stack upgrade ever again. To learn more from one of our internal experts book a meeting with us today.
Chapter 5: Finding the Secret to B2B Online Success
Insight from the Author:
I recall my boss’ visit to my office and his explosive plan for me to build the company’s new website. In retrospect, he was asking for a successful website but all I can remember is seeing passion in his eyes as he envisioned an awesome site that all of our customers would want to use. The site would bring our e-commerce out from the shadows, boost sales and become the winning channel all other channels would want to beat.
His ideals were not lost on me. I too wanted a great website and an unbeatable channel, but creating a successful website means different things to different people. To my boss and leadership team it meant increased sales. To our sales reps it meant flexibility for their customers, and to our customers it meant convenience.
It was clear the website had a big job of accommodating everyone’s interpretation of success. In order to accomplish these tasks, I had to set my focus on the customer. Sales and Sales Rep support would come once they felt confident about ordering online. I began thinking “where can the website add value and provide customers with more than just a turnkey commerce solution?”
It would not be enough to just build offline features online. The website needed to be a step up with ways to incorporate personalization. This meant going back to each section of the website to find opportunities to personalize the user experience.
Knowing about my customers buying behavior I was able to redesign the homepage to include quick buys of past purchases. I developed a ‘create your own discount section’ which gave customers the ability to build products that fit their need and budget. I also leveraged the ‘My Account’ section to include business support features, such as contract price review and ‘create your own custom item number’. Lastly, I built the front-end pages that allowed buyers to change the site look and feel and add their customer logo, which gave users the ability to use the website in a way that works best for them.
B2B companies that are hesitant to commit to an e-commerce website that provides a full-service website is leaving potential revenue opportunities on the table. B2B customers are not like B2C customers, unexpected conversions can come when users have the freedom to spend time on your site performing functions such as bill pay, quoting, account management, price checking, and contract renewals. When businesses start diving deeper into their operations the website can become more than just a dressing-up a B2C site that accommodates B2B ordering, it becomes a channel customers can use.
Every channel has its own challenges. The challenge on the web has traditionally been about adding more products and discounts rather than improving customer service. Businesses today though are hearing a lot of complaints from their customers who want to know why their particular need isn’t solved online. Successful B2B websites seek to incorporate customers conveniences, not just through the ordering process. There is one truth I’ve come to know in website development “the success of a website is based on the customers’ ability to use the site unencumbered.” There are several essential traits a successful B2B website must have:
• Accuracy in accessing and purchasing items through your shopping cart checkout process.
• Agility in navigating, searching, and finding the products they are looking for.
• Convenience by having support services that help customers manage their account directly online.
• Knowledge of website performance, visits, and conversions using analytic methods.
How to add value:
• Leverage every area of your website: The home page is often where B2B businesses shine. Give your customers the ability to easily purchase the same 100 items they purchased last time while simultaneously promoting discounts on additional, similar items so your customers will keep coming back, and they’ll keep buying more.
• Map out your customers’ digital journey: Study your customers’ buying preferences. A lot of customers in the B2B world order the same things over and over again. Some customers buy different things on a per-project basis, but its more infrequent. Above all, they need efficiency and don’t always want to go through the site. Examples of giving customers what they need is making sure they have fast order paths with buy again buttons or for complex orders, or letting them upload an excel sheet.
• Seek to add offline and online value: Trying to translate this type of customer interaction online is difficult. A customer who doesn’t like the price they saw online can’t negotiate with their computer. Determining how to bring customizable and personalization tools to the website will be how you add value to the website and differentiate it from the competition.
Building a new website may be the most difficult project you will complete. There will be a lot of new decisions that need to be made such as determining the best platform and development partners to work with that will set the tone for your digital initiative.
As you begin to build your new website, keep in mind the following key takeaways to help you succeed and avoid roadblocks in your project:
• Know what your company wants to achieve, whether it’s to build a conventional e-commerce website or an enterprise business-unit website.
• Hire resources early and make sure team members who are part of the development process are trained and able to manage and maintain the site once it launches.
• Secure executive sponsorship and ensure the project is a company-wide directive. • Allocate an initial budget including unexpected expenses, such as travel and training.
• Schedule frequent discussions with the IT team about potential data issues and make a plan to work through them.
• Create an initial timeline, plan for all phases of development, and set milestones.
• Choose a platform wisely, it will be hard to rip and replace your site’s foundation if it does not fit your future needs.
• Consider headless, which gives you the ability to change your front-end layer quickly as you grow.
• Choose a development partner that can do the job and that you can work with, problems will occur if their programmers are not capable of coding in your preferred platform.
• Conduct keyword research and check out your competitors’ websites, learn what the industry is doing or not doing.
• Look for inspiration in the B2C world, B2B customers want a similar experience to what they’re accustomed to in B2C.
To have a successful website, build it with the same experience online as offline when it comes to engagement and convenience. If you do, customers will be more likely to visit your website again and again. Lastly, prepare your organization for the kind of digital growth you want today, tomorrow and beyond.
About the Author
Carla Gonzales is an Ecommerce Business Manager at Würth Louis and Company who holds two master’s degrees from Regis University, an MS in Data Science and an MBA in Marketing. With over 20+ years of experience in e-commerce, Carla is a veteran who has been there and seen it all. She has a long track record of building successful B2C and B2B websites. She is a truly diverse individual with extensive experience in web design, development, marketing, and data science. Carla lives in Chino Hills California with her family.
Elastic Path Commerce
Elastic Path offers the leading purpose-built headless commerce platform to unify experiences across the entire enterprise. As the pioneer of headless commerce, Elastic Path empowers you to sell products and services in the connected world through the web and a touch of a finger or a spoken command. Its products, including Elastic Path Commerce Cloud, deliver commerce freedom and accelerate the creation of any customer experience on a single platform. Through collaborative innovation between Elastic Path’s team, customers and partners, Elastic Path leads the way in revolutionizing commerce. About the Author Carla Gonzales is an Ecommerce Business Manager at Würth Louis and Company who holds two master’s degrees from Regis University, an MS in Data Science and an MBA in Marketing. With over 20+ years of experience in e-commerce, Carla is a veteran who has been there and seen it all. She has a long track record of building successful B2C and B2B websites. She is a truly diverse individual with extensive experience in web design, development, marketing, and data science. Carla lives in Chino Hills California with her family.
Are you looking to deliver unified commerce experiences across all customer touchpoints? Contact Elastic Path.