Last updated: E-commerce: What’s broken, your platform or your process?

E-commerce: What’s broken, your platform or your process?


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A few years ago, I worked with a client who was very disappointed in their current e-commerce platform, citing poor traffic and poor conversion rates. While discussing options for replatforming, it became very clear to me that while their e-commerce platform had some issues, the greater problem was the clients’ expectations.

In essence, the client expected their e-commerce platform to somehow miraculously fix a very broken business process.

I’m a firm believer that technology exists to support the business. It’s very difficult to employ technology for technology’s sake and reap huge benefits. For example, buying a word processing program isn’t going to teach you how to write. It’s just a tool to make what you already do easier and faster while keeping you more connected.

Back to the client I mentioned earlier. They were working with several legacy systems that were built from scratch over the years, and supported things like inventory management, order management, and accounting. Each of these systems operated in a virtual silo, and required manual data transfer for integration. In one case, a CSV file was created from one system, modified to fit the required format for another system, FTP-ed to a folder on a second server, and then an import job was run from the second system.

Many businesses deal with these sort of disjointed processes every day, which are typically considered a necessary evil, especially if there’s no budget for change. But if there is budget for change, there are some steps you should take.

Start by identifying the problem. Pinpoint the broken or cumbersome aspects of your business processes, and then detect which systems currently support them. After all, it will cost you more in the long run to customize a new e-commerce platform to function in a broken environment. It will also make it more difficult for customers to interact with your company online.

You can do this by taking a top-down look at the following three areas outlined below to ensure the effort will truly improve your business (and thus, your customer experience):

  • Data Flow: Chart all the necessary data flows that support order processing. Remember to consider and include returns, customer service inquiries, add-to-order calls, backorder management, inventory management, etc. Perform this exercise from the customers’ point of view as this will provide a valuable look into how your processes are affecting your users.
  • System Inventory: Take each data flow and identify every system in the flow that touches data, and its reason for being a part of the process. Catalog whether the system is read-only, write-only, or both. If the system both reads and writes data, identify whether the data is altered during the process and the specific changes that are made. Also, estimate how much time each system interaction takes, and whether it affects the propagation of data in the given flow.
  • Manual Processes: If any manual human interaction is required during any stage of your data flow, be sure to create detailed documentation of the steps involved. Identify the data needed, the role of the person involved, the reason for their interaction, and how much time it takes to perform the manual action.

Once you’ve collected and analyzed all this information, reverse direction and take a bottom-up look. Start with each manual process. Consider a process redesign for any manual actions critical to customer interaction. If the only reason you have a manual process is because you’ve  “always done it that way,” it’s high time to take a good look things. Manual processes are extremely error prone, and the slightest mistake can have huge impact. Continue upward by looking at system interactions, identifying bottlenecks, and other areas that may be error prone. Finally, examine all the data flows to make sure effort isn’t duplicated or even worse, completely unnecessary for the business to function.

Identifying problem areas will only help when the time to change your e-commerce platform does come. During the project planning stage, you can get a good idea of the amount of effort required to work around your problem areas. This level of understanding and familiarity around what needs to be changed can make it easier for you to determine if an immediate investment would be beneficial.

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This post originally appeared on Carlson on Commerce.

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