A Day In The Life Of Running A Shopping Cart Platform
My name is Rick Wilson and I'm the President/COO of Miva Merchant a long time leader in the Small and Medium Sized Business Shopping Cart space.
My role here at Miva Merchant is to run day to day operations, which includes the head of Support, Sales, Marketing, Development, Hosting, IT and Professional Services all report up to me.
At a high level my day breaks down into 4 distinct roles I fill:
- Operations Issues (the boring stuff, like approving budgets and doing things that are necessary but are supportive in nature instead of moving the ball forward)
- Interacting With Customers (generally through our Community Forums, but also via email and phone)
- Problem Solving (internal or external)
- Product Planning (both short term and long term road maps and update schedules)
I'm not going into any detail here on Number 1: Operations Issues, it's the business version of eating your vegetables every day, you've got to do it, you learn how to enjoy it, but it's not what's getting you excited to get out of bed each morning.
Number 2: Interacting With Customers however is something I want to spend a big part of this post discussing. I consider this part of the secret sauce to running any good business. I routinely hear from our customers how much they appreciate that I take time out of my day to provide some personal attention to them.
Here's the secret to that sauce, it doesn't take that much time at all and the benefits are huge. I primarily interact with our customers through our online community forums (so if you don't have an online vehicle to interact with your customers, that's the first thing to handle). I would estimate this takes up roughly an hour or so of my day. I personally read every post that is posted on our Forums, but if you do it daily, like exercise, it becomes easy and routine. I only reply to a small number of posts, but I look for specific things:
- Posts that are being ignored and need to be filtered to the right person, or company such as a partner (unless you're on the receiving end of one of these emails, no one would ever even know I was involved).
- Themes that crop up consistently across the board in multiple posts (this becomes critical when doing Product Planning which I'll cover shortly). Again I'm interacting with customers here in a very meaningful way, however I'm not replying or taking up a ton of my time in doing so.
- Posts that I'm uniquely qualified to answer, such as our thinking on adding or not adding a feature in the future to our product, or why we made a specific paradigm decision.
- Problems that come up that I need to help address and provide an official context.
On average I write on our community forums 3.3 times per day. The vast majority of my posts are less than 2 sentences and take seconds to write. This is far and away one of the best uses of my time as a leader.
From the interactions I have on the forums, I will then sometimes ask a client to email me about a specific issue that I feel is important to dig into and assist. As a rule I have an "open email" policy, I publicly encourage our customers to email me directly for any reason, especially problems.
Here's what I've found by having this policy for years:
- You find problems quickly, generally before they spin out of control.
- By doing this consistently, you actually don't get that many emails. I'd have to do a little digging to figure it out, but I would estimate that I only hear from customers directly out of the blue about once a day, maybe less. This from a base of tens of thousands of online stores is a very low number.
- Most importantly it helps keep you from getting too insulated as you grow your business. We have 70+ employees now and growing. It's impossible for me to know what almost any of them are doing at any given time and this allows me to have a good sense of things without getting in the way.
This naturally leads to the next item on my list of things I do for a living and that's, Number 3: Problem Solving.
Solving problems is an interesting art and something I learned a long time ago isn't generally the same thing as making people happy.
Making someone happy generally means acquiescing to their request or somehow making up for a perceived lacking. This is fundamentally different than actually solving a problem.
I try and follow a few rules when it comes to solving problems:
- Identify the problem. More so than just about anything else when it comes to solving problems, both sides of a problem usually don't spend enough time actually identifying what the problem is. We see this in many forms, from people looking for advice on how to do something without actually clarifying what they're trying to do and why they're trying to do it, all the way up to critical tickets in our support system that claim their site is down, but doesn't include any further information (sometimes they don't even include their site name and URL). If you spend the proper time at the beginning identifying the actual problem, solving it becomes much easier.
- Who created the problem? Specifically, problems are generally results of a mismatch of expectations, so where did the expectation setting go wrong? In our case for example, we're a shopping cart platform, which at it's most core collects orders and payments online. If someone's orders are coming through without payment, where is the breakdown occurring? Did they not properly setup a payment gateway? Are they using a third party payment gateway we don't support or have anything to do with? Or is something we've built in broken? Depending on the circumstances of the above, this may be a critical platform wide problem for us (say our Authorize.net implementation was broken), that we would literally stop everything we're doing to fix as fast as possible. Or it could be something we have nothing to do with, they turned on Authorize.net and left it in Test Mode without following the instructions. Which is a different problem with a different solution.
- Is this problem critical? In the example I used above where payments aren't getting collected, then yes the problem is certainly critical to the store owner and potentially critical to our platform. Problems ultimately need to be prioritized and figuring out the critical nature of the problem is a cornerstone. If the problem is critical to that site owner, but not platform critical to us, that can provide a very different path forward than something that's impacting all of our customers.
It's key however that you don't use prioritization as an excuse for never solving the problem or poor customer service. Just because something's not critical to everyone using your product doesn't mean it's not critical to this customer. It's a fine line sometimes in figuring out how far you can go in solving someone's problem depending on the circumstances, but it's important to always start with the goal of supporting your customers at the highest level possible.
By digging into both communicating and interacting with customers and having a solid methodology for exploring and solving problems this really sets the stage for the final piece of the puzzle in running a shopping cart platform.
Number 4: Product Planning, or in other words what are you going to add and change about your product going forward.
This is my favorite part of what I do for a living, setting a vision for something we can expand upon, change or fundamentally add to our product, and then work through the implementation of that vision.
Without spending significant time on customer interaction and properly solving problems, product planning can easily get way off track and you can find yourself building the The Homer (a car Homer Simpson designed.
We have a talented, effective and aggressive team of programmers and developers here at Miva Merchant but no matter how big or effective that team becomes, we'll always have more items on our to do list for the product roadmap then we'll ever be able to accomplish.
What you say NO to is generally far more important than the things you say YES to adding to your product. It takes discipline and understanding of your product and how your customers use it, to be able to tell them no when they consistently ask for something. Just because a customer is asking for it doesn't mean it's the right thing to add.
Another key note on this subject is that in my history of running and being involved with Miva Merchant, I can't recall many times when the next "big thing" came from customer requests.
As a rule customers are requesting things that they perceive will make their life or workflow easier at that moment without having a holistic view on their workflow or even having fully thought through the problem they're trying to solve. If all you do is add products to reduce customers perceived pain one small request at a time, you'll end up way off course.
The art in this process is being involved and watching how your customers are using your product and understanding the larger goals of their business. From that perspective you can often times see the "forest for the trees" as the cliche goes and fundamentally improve your product for a large portion of your user base and solve the original problem in a wholly unique way.
Ultimately my experience in running Miva Merchant leads me to believe that people will respond positively to operating in a consistent manner, even when that means you don't solve all of their problems or always make everyone happy.
Consistency, execution and being fair if you will, is all that most people could ever ask for.
Carlos Rivera says:
I can personally vouch for Rick. He does everything he talks about in the above article, and more.
Takeaway point: It really makes a difference when you care about your customers, interact with them, and genuinely show you care.