Using eCommerce to Solve Operational Challenges VI: Improved Data Management Can Solve SO MANY of Your Problems

Let’s talk about the link between eCommerce and business operations and why it’s so critical to look beyond your eCommerce goals when you implement your new solutions. Part VI, the final article of my eCommerce Operations Series.

After so many eCommerce implementations over the span of my career, I can tell you that data management ends up being the root of so many operational challenges. When I’m building a website, the first step for me is to always assess the product catalog and data elements. I need a complete understanding of the data structure, the gaps, the data integrity, and how it’s all leveraged across the organization.

Weirdly, product data is a low priority for so many companies. It drives so many parts and functions of an organization that it’s baffling to me how underserved it typically is. I get it–it’s expensive, tedious, definitely the least sexy kind of initiative in which to invest, so it loses out to a lot of initiatives that seem to promise a bigger and quicker ROI. But when you look at the big picture, it should be the last thing a company sidelines.

One of the best things you can do as a leader in your organization, no matter what your title is, is champion your data management team and support their efforts. If you can leverage your eCommerce implementation and workstream to help your data management team positively impact the quality of your product assets, you can positively impact your entire organization, including functions like:

  • eCommerce Function (especially search!)
  • Sales & Conversion Rates across the organization
  • Return Rates (lower ‘em!)
  • Data & Analytics
  • Marketing, Cross Sell/Upsell, and SEO
  • Many others… this list could probably go on all day

So, what steps can you take to move forward and activate on a strategy to partner with data management and improve your data?

  1. Get to know your data management folks. They often live in IT, but their roles have a far-reaching impact into Operations and Marketing. Build a relationship with their leader and learn about their systems, challenges, and goals.
  2. Dig into the SOPs. Learn about your data management team’s current standard operating procedures and work with them on developing any that are missing or adjusting them based on the needs of the many impacted constituent groups (Marketing, DCs, IT). Each field should have standardized language and wording that is normalized and supports your product and marketing strategies.
  3. Develop a structure around your product data that allows for text fields and fixed attributes. Text fields should be things like your short and long descriptions that allow for marketing copy and more descriptive language. Your fixed attributes will be things like length, width, color, size, etc. Whenever possible, these should be standardized and sorted into a drop down (manual data entry leads to all kinds of challenges). If you do this right, you can even generate eCommerce fields with concatenated (linked together in a chain) attributes. This kind of automation can allow you to truly scale your product catalog–so, if you have a lot of items, taking the time to create this kind of structure can pay off in a big way.
  4. Support your teams! Educate your data management team on how important they are and how critical their data standards are. Offer them a wider context on their role in the business–it can make a huge difference for those working in a tedious job. I have trained data management on the mechanics of SEO, search, and even their impact on conversion rates for the organization. They need the big picture, too!

Now, if you don’t have a data management team, the approach becomes a little different. This might sound self serving, but seriously, hire someone who knows what they’re doing and let them help you. You want someone who understands the far-reaching impact of this work. It’s not just going out and finding information–it’s all about structure, consistency, and then complete data population.

I’ll warn you now: if you invest in this exercise, it’s not a one time thing. This is an ongoing initiative for which you need to plan. But once it’s in your business’s DNA, you’ll see the impact everywhere.

Using eCommerce to Solve Operational Challenges VI: Improved Data Management Can Solve SO MANY of Your Problems

Using eCommerce to Solve Operational Challenges V: Get Sales on Your Side

Let’s talk about the link between eCommerce and business operations and why it’s so critical to look beyond your eCommerce goals when you implement your new solutions. Part V of my eCommerce Operations Series.

So, now we’re traipsing slightly outside of traditional Operations, but I think of this part as a “twofer”–kind of where Sales and Operations meet–so you can hit a real sweet spot with two important constituent groups!

Have you talked to your sales force, or are you avoiding them?

I know when I first jumped into the B2B eCommerce landscape and had a sales force to contend with, I was frankly both frustrated and intimidated. They felt I was encroaching on their territory, and since they got commissions on any sales through my channel, I really didn’t understand why they were so resistant to eCommerce. I didn’t feel like I should have to run everything by them (I’m an independent sort of human), and they felt like I was messing with their strategy. And I don’t know if you have ever had an interaction with a sales rep that feels like you have “crossed” them (even inadvertently), but it can be a little scary!

It turns out that avoiding Sales never works. I mean, if you think about it, it’s literally their job to keep pushing and pushing until they meet their goal. The best plan is to meet them head on, and figure out how to join forces to fix administrative issues and make their lives better. This way, they become eCommerce adapters and even supporters rather than detractors. Plus, if you partner with them, you actually bring that whole omni channel concept to real life, and it’s not just a fancy word–it actually works (or add in some other little tag-on at the end of this sentence to balance out the “it’s not just a fancy word” statement–something like “it’s actually great” or whatever reaches that effect).

How do you start?

Make friends and ask questions.

No one knows the customers or where the skeletons are buried better than your sales force. They know the policies, they know the workarounds, and they know how to drive business. Ask them how they do their jobs, shadow them for a day, listen to their calls, learn their pain points, and see where they have to waste their time to bring an order home.

Specifically zero in on their operational pain points.

  • Can you help them get faster order status’ or send them to their customers so they can drop that as a task (unless they want to perform it)?
  • How does the pricing work (or not work) for them?
  • What requires a manual workaround?
  • How can you help them eliminate touchpoint in customer service?
  • Can you help them get the same operational intelligence as they are building quotes that are you feeding your customer base?
  • Do they have real-time inventory?
  • Do they have access to contract information (and other related information) that is custom to that customer?

Ask them what you could do with your eCommerce platform to make it more cooperative and less oppositional.

  • What about eCommerce is making it harder for them to do their jobs?
  • Are there tools they wish they had in the platform?
  • Are there opportunities to give them intelligence from the eCommerce activities of their customers?

An anecdote:

I worked for a distributor at one point that had field sales, telesales, and an eCommerce presence. After doing some analysis, I felt like our abandoned cart rate was way too high, and I decided to do some digging with the sales force. It turned out that the reps and customers had developed this process where the customer would add all of their items to cart, copy the cart and then paste it into an email, and send it to the rep for pricing. The rep would then build an order in their separate tool, price it, and process once they had customer approval.

I was a little perplexed to say the least, but I decided to just lean into it. We developed a tool where the customer could build their cart and then hit a button to email it to their rep. The rep could then import the cart into their tool for custom pricing and process the order. It became a secondary cart conversion and quickly became one of the most adopted tools. Reps were happy, customers were happy, and all we had to do was listen!

Truly, it was my experience with sales that led us to build our POCommerce solution, a combined eCommerce and Sales Ordering tool. Rather than making multiple systems converse, we preferred to customize a robust eCommerce platform to also serve as the sales ordering portal. This means reps can see customer online activity or create and push quotes to the customer site. The platform is integrated with the internal ERP, pulling pricing rules, contracts, licensing and supporting documentation and order detail.

This has allowed us a bird’s eye view into innovative customer/sales communication. It helps drive customers online and helps reps become even more comfortable with the web. We have also incorporated tools around price and margin intelligence, and it has made all the difference for our customers.

The development of ideas like this has come from years of working to bring sales, eCommerce, and operations together in a seamless way. The power of the omni channel can’t be harnessed without everyone aligning and pushing together. Leveraging your sales team to find operational pain points is a no-lose situation. Some can’t be solved with eCommerce, but those relationships and gaining exposure to their experience and their knowledge of the customer will be invaluable.

Using eCommerce to Solve Operational Challenges V: Get Sales on Your Side

Using eCommerce to Solve Operational Challenges IV: Help Your Finance Team Find Some Wins

Let’s talk about the link between eCommerce and business operations and why it’s so critical to look beyond your eCommerce goals when you implement your new solutions. Part IV of my eCommerce Operations Series.

As I have worked on major initiatives in larger companies, my finance partners have been incredibly important. Their access to data and focus on the bottom line can be invaluable in building business cases and in making policy decisions based on data rather than subjective opinion. For example, are you losing on shipping fees because of legacy decisions? Or are you seeing order margin leakage in other areas because of pricing rules, discount policies, or lack of handling/restocking fees?

When you work in a large organization, pennies per order can add up to a major difference in profitability. If you partner with and harness the power of the Finance team, you learn so much about your business, help the Finance team achieve their profitability goals, and strengthen your eCommerce platform and business case.

Whenever I work with Finance, they are always creatively looking for either growth opportunities or ways to cut expenses to improve profitability. They are often exerting energy that can feel oppositional to Sales; for example, trying to edge margins up or add in fees to cover expenses around shipping or distribution, while sales is constantly trying to cut prices to win more business from their customers. The eCommerce platform and re-ordering processes often offer windows of opportunity to secure some of these shipping and handling fees or to expose customers to more competitive margins in a passive way.

How do we start?

  1. We look at your overall business strategy and goals and bounce them off your current eCommerce policies. We ask questions like:
  2. How are you charging for shipping? (Flat Fee, Shipping Calculator, Min. Order Value, Free no matter what, etc.) Are there holes?
  3. Do you have a handling fee? (Hazardous or complex items, refrigerated items, fragile items, etc.)
  4. Do you charge a restocking fee for large items that are returned?
  5. When it comes to profitability, how do your online orders compare to orders placed from other channels?
  6. How do you calculate your “base” price? “online” price? “customer” price? How is that intersecting with order profitability?
  7. What possible changes could be made to inch up order margin over time without impacting customer experience?
  8. How do we help the sales team feel empowered and engaged with the decisions while margin expands and prices inevitably go up?
  9. What communication vehicles are you using now to communicate about these things and how can you communicate honestly with your customers without creating negative feelings or impact on your business?

These can be heavy topics, I know. In my experience, there are really two keys to success.

First: Having the data clearly defined up front. With analysis on hand, you’ll be able to see the problems and define a path forward. The finance team can be a great ally in this entire process–from data gathering and analysis to defining how you think you can create the path forward with the platform.

Second: Pulling Sales leadership into the process as early as possible. In my world, Sales was my toughest constituent group for change because they were the toughest defender of the customer (as they should be). Bringing them into the room forces real understanding of sales and customer impact and, while it may slow you down, you’ll end up with a better policy and rollout plan because of it.

Developing these kinds of plans as a team can bring everyone much closer together, and will help you come up with more creative solutions for future challenges.

So, how do you creatively leverage your eCommerce channel to reduce margin erosion?

  1. Establishing rules-based ordering behaviors, like:
  2. Enacting pricing driven by customer behavior or tier (unless there is custom pricing set for a given item). A base price online that is set competitively–but not as low as you can go–can make online ordering more profitable.
  3. Setting shipping fees based on a minimum order value.
  4. Defaulting customers to the DC that is physically closest to them and making sure the inventory levels they see are reflective of that DC (controls shipping costs).
  5. Charging restocking fees for returns.
  6. Charging for expedited shipping.
  7. Set handling fees for any items that require additional work or handling for proper shipping.
  8. Communicating any and all fees upfront and honestly.
  9. Engaging with sales and marketing on communication, FAQs, and explanations.
  10. Empowering sales to still be able to waive some fees and create exceptions, but leveraging your discount code function for this, limiting them to X times per month.

Not all of these strategies are right for every business, but standardization and application of rules driven policies on your website can absolutely drive up profitability online. If your sales team benefits from these strategies, they will be more likely to buy in, and once they see them in practice online, they may be more likely to stop offering discounts right out of the gate.

When you leverage your eCommerce solution for external or internal ordering, you can build in rules and boundaries for customers and reps alike to guide your users down the path towards your goals while offering them a smooth and successful customer experience. You can plug those margin leaks on a vast majority of orders, especially re-orders placed online. When you help customers self-serve, you’ll be amazed at the efficiency and value opportunities that are possible.

Using eCommerce to Solve Operational Challenges IV: Help Your Finance Team Find Some Wins

Using eCommerce to Solve Operational Challenges III: The Return Headache

Let’s talk about the link between eCommerce and business operations and why it’s so critical to look beyond your eCommerce goals when you implement new solutions. Part III of my eCommerce Operations Series.

Are your Customer Support teams and DC(s) overwhelmed by a poor return process?

This problem one is a big one. I know, I know–you’re probably giving me the side eye, but this is actually still widespread in B2B. I think it’s because it always falls to the bottom of the development priority list, and no one ever takes the time to quantify the sheer number of problems a bad return process causes and its cumulative impact on the bottom line.

I have had so many clients who are frustrated with their return process. Here’s a typical scenario:

  1. A customer without their order number calls in, tying up customer service by requesting a return on the phone. The call takes a long time because they don’t have the information they need to place the return.
  2. The customer service process is prohibitively manual–generating return or pick up labels has to be done one-by-one because label creation isn’t automated.
  3. The customer service rep wants to do the right thing, and they issue a return to pick up the item. However, with no reference to the original item, it may or may not square up with the DC information when the packages arrive on site. This makes restocking a real issue for DC as they struggle to identify the pick location (after they determine if it is or is not returnable).
  4. Accounting doesn’t know what to do with the return because they can’t align the return to the original order or price paid.
  5. So, in this scenario, you have impact on Customer Service, Distribution Centers, and Accounting–all just for a simple return. If the process takes too long, it can also get escalated to Sales, who will then put pressure back on Customer Service. All that time, and so many people, used for only one returned item.

    Developing an online, customer-initiated return process within your eCommerce platform can create a much easier and more streamlined process for everyone. As Amazon and other online retailers have mastered this process, more and more people are comfortable initiating their return online without the help of administrative staff, and B2B businesses need to take advantage of this.

    How do we usually start this process?

    First, we work with our clients on their return policies. We assess the current structure and supporting teams. We analyze any pain points, especially with support and the distribution centers, and we even look at product data (glaring errors definitely create mis-orders).

    Next, we help tweak the existing policy to drive customers to their online account to initiate their return online. This helps clients not only in automating the return policy, but also in online adoption. After all, if your customers can only initiate an order online, this is the perfect jumping-off point for the stubborn, anti-online-account-customers.

    The process then prompts the customer to select an item from an existing order before they can submit the return request. Finally, we ensure that non-returnable items are flagged with a specific item attribute, which will keep improper items from ever making their way onto a return or back to your distribution centers.

    Our platforms all have functions that:

    • Prompt the customer to start their return in their account
    • Pull return options at the item level from existing orders
    • Hold returns in a queue for approval before generating the credit and return labels
    • Send automated communications as the steps of the process are completed
    • Can connect with your delivery service of choice to automatically generate the right type of return label and send it to your client via email

    Leveraging the customer for some of this work helps take the onus off your customer service and sales teams. Requiring the return be tied to an order to be processed automatically smoothes out the process for your distribution center and your accounting team.

    As a side note, as you work with your data management team to help customers find and order the right product at the outset with improved product information and images, you can reduce the return rate itself by improving order accuracy. (This will also gain you points in customer SAT 😉.)

    This is one of the simplest things we’ve implemented that has made the biggest impact for multiple businesses we’ve worked with. But so many B2B businesses don’t understand that a customer-initiated return process should be table stakes in their eCommerce platform. Customers can manage to do some of these things on their own–to their own benefit as well as to the benefit of your business. It’s time to stop putting this one off!

    Using eCommerce to Solve Operational Challenges III: The Return Headache

Using eCommerce to Solve Operational Challenges II: Leveraging eCommerce to Fix Human Error

Let’s talk about the link between eCommerce and business operations and why it’s so critical to look beyond your traditional eCommerce goals when you implement new solutions. Part II of my eCommerce Operations Series.

Don’t let human error ruin your day–solve it the eCommerce way. (ha ha)

Fat-fingered data entry is a tale as old as time, turning a would-be-simple ordering process into a major headache riddled with human errors. At best, human errors are annoying, inconvenient nuisances. However, at their worst, these errors become major stumbling blocks for businesses, manufacturers, and consumers alike. The good news is that there is no need to live under the constant threat of attack-by-human-error. The better news is that eCommerce solutions can do so much to help you–no human necessary.

The most common example of human error in my world has been my ops team getting so sick of receiving mis-keyed orders. The orders get stuck and require manual manipulation to drop to the DC, which is a massive administrative time waste. If it’s not mis-keyed orders, my ops team is dealing with reps and customers placing crazy backorders because they just don’t know what’s in stock, out of stock, or on long-term manufacturer backorder. This means the team has to manually swap in alternates or the backorder report just sits there and grows like a gargoyle.

These are simple issues to offset if you look at two things:

  1. Controlling how the orders are entered by working with data management on data field challenges.
  2. Improving the information available to the user at time of order placement, leveraging category management and product purchasing teams.

Yeah, I know that was kind of reductive, but bear with me.

I’ve worked with several companies where ops or Materials Management is plagued by poor manual order and data entry. In some cases, the sales order entry tool, the eCommerce tool, and the ERP weren’t properly configured or connected in real time, and it has meant major headaches, manual item fixes/replacements, and rerouted orders for the administrative teams.

Many companies leave open text fields for folks to put in whatever quantity or unit of measure they like. This opens companies up for all kinds of additional data headaches.

We’ve solved a lot of these problems with our eCommerce solutions by:

  • Consolidating ordering platforms for uniformity across the organization. This also means one platform for sales and customers, increasing transparency and communication and ensuring that everyone stays on the same page.
  • Streamlining eCommerce order functions so customers love to use them. Frankly, customers often do a better job of ordering (especially reordering) what they want rather than going through another party.
  • Ensuring close to real-time connectivity if you need to keep multiple applications. So, if your DC runs out of an item, your ERP will immediately tell your ordering platform, and your salesforce and customer base can pivot accordingly.
  • Simply doing a better job with the user experience in communicating with sales and customers about stock status and alternate items. Empower your customers to make the choice on the eCommerce platform and make life easier!
  • Changing allowable order operations and open fields to drop-downs and limiting selection options to those that are correct. Stop mis-keying altogether and only let them put in the right quantities or options. Think of the orders flowing freely!

A lot of these solutions are common sense, but getting them through multiple teams can still be a heavy lift.

So, how might you proceed? Here are some suggestions:

  • Sit down with your operations teams early and often–everyone from purchasing to distribution and support teams–and talk about areas of error and potential solutions. Simple changes can have BIG impacts.
  • Make sure you also talk to different constituent groups (you’ll get different answers and great examples from front line reps!). That on-the-ground insight can help you develop more credible ideas, which will help you with their leaders.
  • Identify the biggest annoyances of your constituent groups (workers and managers). What are they? Can you solve any of them by creating eCommerce solutions and web interfaces that can normalize item ordering? Can you set different rules and alerts around backorders and help with automatic substitution?

You’d be shocked how much a team will lean in if they think your project (and budget) can help them solve their biggest pain point. This can also create important camaraderie between teams and offer opportunities for ambitious folks on those teams who would love to participate as point person in your project or initiative.

Instead of avoiding these issues, go seek them out! You have the opportunity to create a collaborative environment with the teams dealing with downstream order data issues. You can solve those problems with the eCommerce user interface and by eliminating opportunities for human error when you have the opportunity–and you can build consensus and opportunities for more feedback in the future.

Using eCommerce to Solve Operational Challenges II:Leveraging eCommerce to Fix Human Error

Using eCommerce to Solve Operational Challenges: A Series from the Front Lines

I used to think that eCommerce was all about driving sales and that project implementation was all about overcoming challenges between IT and Marketing. And maybe it once was. But times have changed, and so have the problems. It’s time we adjusted our mindset (and our approach).

Traditionally, the B2B world has seen eCommerce just as a marketing and sales tool to drive visibility and, subsequently, conversions. In my opinion, this limited mindset is the biggest reason why B2B businesses have traditionally been slower to adopt to new technology and to an omnichannel approach.

To succeed in today’s environment, your KPIs should have a blend of revenue and operational metrics, or you are missing half of your opportunity. If you find the right operational stakeholders, you can solve so many business challenges with eCommerce–challenges that you may not have ever considered as “your problem” as an eCommerce leader.

eCommerce has always been a blend of marketing and IT, art and science. Having worked in eCommerce and digital marketing for 16 years, I can tell you that the original battles were always between marketing and IT. IT needed to listen to marketing, and marketing needed to speak and respect tech. Bringing these groups together was a challenge (and it still can be!), but I’ve stood up dozens of sites across giant and not-so-giant companies, and I can tell you very clearly where the tallest tent poles of eCommerce projects are–and they aren’t in marketing or in IT.

I have confidence in my coders–they are brilliant–and I have confidence that my marketing and business stakeholders can represent the needs of the business and the needs of customers. Typically, both IT and marketing are excited about (and understand the benefit of) eCommerce. So, then, where are the biggest headaches?

The true pain points sit in operations.

In every website or business I have built, we’ve come to a screeching halt when it’s time for the rubber to meet the road with the operational side of the business. Whether it’s surprise business processes, broken systems, or resistant teams overwhelmed with their own day-to-day work, operations can become the biggest obstacle to successful completion–or even to eCommerce adoption in the first place.  

I paint with broad strokes when I use the term “operations.” operations can cover distribution, legal, and finance, and any of the other operational teams that work with or (should ;-)) support sales and marketing.

To some, this operational struggle is a super frustrating obstacle. I have experienced it enough that I now plan for it. These challenges have also became an opportunity to build relationships, solve business problems, and win people over to the benefits of embracing eCommerce fully in their business.

Any number of issues or objections can suddenly pop up when you’re trying to get buy-in for a project or to complete a project that’s already approved and in flight. Here are a few examples of some of the most common (and simple) issues that I’ve come across in the last several years:

  • Operations/materials management teams that are sick of getting mis-keyed orders or crazy backorders placed by reps and customers alike–including a legacy platform that just makes the team’s life harder.
  • Customer support teams and DC(s) overwhelmed by a poor, manual return process and frustrated customers when returns aren’t handled promptly.
  • Losses on shipping and handling fees on every order and general order margin leakage in other areas.
  • Sales reps that have gone hog wild with discounts, driving margins down.
  • Product data that’s just fine for a purchasing team, but unworkable on the sales and customer ends (including the eCommerce platform!).

These are just a few of the issues that I’ve encountered in most businesses (but, really, this list could go on and on). Solving the riddles that hugely impact your bottom line can make your eCommerce platform indispensable and can help you build relationships, aligning allies to your eCommerce cause.

Real examples are always more interesting than just straight business theory, so in this article series, I’m going to give you some genuine examples from my experience in the eCommerce jungle, as well as potential ways to proceed, possible questions to ask, and different paths to take, whether you’re an inhouse eCommerce leader or an external consultant. These are just my perspectives–stories from the front lines.

I am a puzzle solver and I love to get things done, so whenever I have “the hood up,” I love to fix anything that’s broken. This series is dedicated to the eCommerce puzzle solvers and the people who can’t let operational efficiencies slide when they find them. I know you’re out there, and I see you!

Using eCommerce to Solve Operational Challenges: A Series from the Front Lines

ProfitOptics Recognized by Inc 5000

ProfitOptics was recognized as being one of the Top 5000 fastest growing companies in the US in 2017 by

With a 3 year growth of 263%, ProfitOptics secured a rank of #1528 on this list of successful small businesses.

We have previously been ranked by Inc 5000 in 2015, as #1023 and in 2016 at #1075.