In “B-to-B Ecommerce: Big Opportunity, Big Obstacles,” I addressed the challenges manufacturers and distributors face as they initiate and grow their ecommerce operations.
One of those challenges is to identify what department within a B-to-B company should lead the ecommerce initiative. In the past, that function fell within the information technology group, which is typically responsible for running the computer infrastructure and managing the overall development of the online store and the integrations to the enterprise systems that run the business. For many companies, that department is the only one with any expertise in that area.
Most manufacturers and industrial distributors have little digital marketing talent on staff. The marketing teams they do have are often focused on channel marketing that utilizes print and, possibly, an online catalog. Sales teams are focused on supporting their direct and channel sales efforts. By default most CEOs direct their chief information officers to oversee ecommerce initiatives.
In my experience, however, this is not the best approach. A better option is to shift responsibility to the entire executive team and to empower the marketing department to hire the appropriate resources to lead the charge.
A better option is to shift responsibility to the entire executive team and to empower the marketing department to hire the appropriate resources to lead the charge.
This article will explain why.
It’s about the Customer, Not Technology
Many B-to-B first generation online stores were poorly designed and rarely updated. This is not a criticism on IT professionals. But they are generally not designers or customer experience experts in small to mid sized manufacturers and distributors. Hence, customer adoption rate was low, revenues were low, and many companies felt they wasted their money.
Today, customer expectations are for an “Amazon like” experience. Today’s B-to-B stores must be customer driven. That’s the marketing department’s job.
The marketing department is charged with understanding your customers: who they are, why they buy, and how to reach them. Additionally, marketing develops branding, messaging, and product content that will communicate the value of your goods and services. The marketing staff oversees product marketing, advertising, pricing, competitive analysis, and promotions and merchandising.
What’s the Point of Ecommerce?
What is the goal of B-to-B ecommerce? It’s to sell your products. It uses technology to deliver product content, a shopping cart, and business rules for customers to complete a purchase based on their unique relationship with your company.
Marketing needs to define what that store looks like and what’s in it. They are the ones who will create and maintain content and merchandising on a daily basis. They are responsible for driving traffic to the store. They also must work hand-in-hand with sales to mitigate channel conflict and maximize the potential revenue and operational improvements from the investment.
Marketing and sales will jointly be responsible for sales performance, but in most organizations, marketing will run the online store. Hence, marketing should lead the ecommerce charge and define the customer experience. The marketing staff should be empowered to define the tools to manage the store.
So, IT departments should provide services to the ecommerce team, not completely control the projects or tools or partners that are selected. IT is a partner in the project and will have oversight for data and system integrations. They will have a strong voice in platform selections, ongoing maintenance concerns, and delivery methods. If customizations of are required, IT will need to support those in the future.
Finance, operations, and the other areas will also have input. But marketing should be driving the project requirements. In the end, the key to success is really a smooth relationship between marketing and IT. Most of the work will be done by those two organizations.
Unfortunately, many organizations do not have appropriate resources or experiences in marketing. Some may also not have the appropriate skill sets in IT to support modern ecommerce platforms.
So where does a smaller company start?
Start with a Plan
CEOs should invest in an “ecommerce roadmap” that involves the entire executive team and, possibly, outside consultants. The roadmap will accomplish the following.
- Define an ecommerce vision, strategy and business goals.
- Assign a team and team leader to oversee the ecommerce implementation.
- Establish the timeline and process for the team and how critical decisions will be made.
- Provide investment parameters.
- Define the key performance indicators that measure success.
The roadmap team should include representatives from marketing, sales, finance, IT, operations, customer support, and others as appropriate for the business. The overall project responsibility should rest with the head of the marketing department, for the reasons mentioned earlier. It will be critical he or she work closely with the head of IT.
The roadmap team will then be responsible for these items.
- Assessing the impact of ecommerce on all functional areas of the business.
- Develop an ecommerce roadmap for the next three years and a detailed action plan for phase 1 of an ecommerce initiative. This will include defining and building the online store, finding appropriate resources to support launch and ongoing operations, identifying dependencies, risk mitigation, customer onboarding, and many other critical tasks.
- Defining the customer experience, and integration requirements of the overall solution.
- Select an ecommerce platform and implementation partner
- Overseeing the implementation.
Throughout this process, the CEO and the executive team should stay involved and ensure that the ecommerce team is focused on the business value and the overall customer experience. The executive team may also need to arbitrate any contentious issues that may arise. Ecommerce will likely impact all areas of a B-to-B business. Implementation often requires tough, but necessary, decisions.