Posts tagged: organizational structure

You ARE a technology company

In this day and age, pretty much every company is heavily dependent on technology to operate. But if you have an e-commerce operation (or really any sort of transaction website), you are a consumer technology company. The sooner we recognize and accept this fact, the sooner we can get on with leveraging it to our competitive advantage.

We often talk about focusing on our “core businesses” at the expense of everything else. At a conference I attended last week, I heard a number of speakers and attendees reference Amazon as a “technology company” as sort of a dismissal. They were basically saying, “Yes, Amazon has lots of great features and functionality and people rate their experience highly, but they’re a technology company. We’re retailers. We can’t compete on that level with them.” This type of statement draws the obvious retort: “So, then, on what level do you plan to compete?”

While Amazon does generate some revenue from selling technology services, the vast majority of their revenue comes from retailing products. Their financial statements look pretty much the same as most retailers (except they have much bigger numbers and growth rates). But Amazon and other pure play online retailers are not burdened with the type of legacy thinking that exists in a lot of multichannel retailers. They understand full well the value of creating a quality online experience, and they understand that technology is part of their core business.

Competing with Amazon is clearly very difficult for a variety of reasons (price being high on the list), but how many business elements can we abdicate to them before our very survival is at stake? Shifting our mindsets regarding our sites is one key way to claw back into the game.

Our websites are consumer software applications, in many ways like Microsoft Word or Quicken. And this means that online our business is technology.

People use our website applications to accomplish tasks like buying our products, learning more about our products or getting inspiration. Their perceptions about the quality of our applications can absolutely make the difference in whether or not they complete their tasks and whether or not they return to use our applications again.

And their perceptions of our brand can also be influenced by the quality of our site experiences. A study by ForeSee Results on the Internet Retailer Top 100 sites found that people who were satisfied with the online experience of a retailer were 44% more likely to purchase offline. That indicates significant value in making sure the website is a quality software experience.

Our websites are also an opportunity to differentiate from our competitors, particularly if we’re not selling proprietary products. If consumers can buy the same North Face jacket or Nikon camera from a variety of different retailers online, the quality of the online experience will be a contributing factor in the decision.

Let’s do what it takes to include the quality of our site experience in our value proposition.

Here are 3 ways to get started towards becoming a consumer technology company:

  1. Organization
    We will likely need to make organizational structure changes to support a consumer technology focus. I previously made a case for changes in E-commerce IT organization that goes into more detail, but suffice to say the technology strategy and the business strategy need to be not only aligned, but integrated.

    Furthermore, we need think about different types of roles. Software companies have product — not project — managers and product teams who are dedicated to building customer focused product strategies and life cycles. A quick check on the Amazon careers page reveals many product management positions. Do you have product management positions in your organization?

    Check out a typical set of responsibilities from Amazon’s Baby Registry product management gig and note the mix of business and technology functions and responsibilities:

    • Research and identify opportunities for Amazon to further distinguish our Baby Registry offering.
    • Define a long-term product roadmap, including technical, business development and marketing initiatives.
    • Develop new strategic partnerships ad drive day-to-day partner relationships.
    • Conduct business and financial analysis, including forecasting, monitoring, and reporting.
    • Define requirements, and drive customer experience projects and work with all relevant cross-functional areas and our technology teams to guarantee smooth, efficient implementation.
    • Manage bottlenecks, provide escalation management, anticipate and make trade-offs, balance the business needs versus technical constraints, and maximize business benefit while building great customer experiences
    • Work cross-functionally with designers, software development engineers, salespeople, product managers, and other internal partners.
  2. Budget/Investment
    How might our current budgets change if we considered ourselves  technology companies? Maybe not at all, but we should nonetheless re-examine our customer investment strategy in such a light. At the very least, we might consider revamping our budget processes to accommodate a fast moving, highly innovative competitive marketplace where the features and functionality of our website “product” are key parts of our business strategy and our ability to differentiate from our competitors.
  3. In house or outsource?
    Often we decide to outsource technology (and other elements of our businesses) because they are not “core” to our business and other people can do a better and more cost effective job. How does our thinking on outsourcing change if we consider ourselves technology companies? We might still legitimately consider outsourcing or licensing third party software, as many software companies do. However, we might also consider building up true competencies in at least some areas of software design and development because of the need to differentiate and deliver quality branded experiences for our customers.

—————————————————

Recognizing and accepting the fact that developing an e-commerce operation puts us in the consumer technology business is an important first step to successfully competing in the online marketplace. Once we’ve achieved the consumer technology mindset, we’ve got to take steps to create an organizational structure that executes like a consumer technology company. Without such steps, we will fall further and further behind the companies who are leveraging their technology focus to create the positive customer engagement cycles I discussed in my previous post.

What do you think? Do you think being in e-commerce means you’re in the in consumer technology business? How is your company organized?

Photo credit: Sebastian Bergmann


The Case for an E-Commerce IT Org Change

As multi-channel retailers move more and more towards implementing cross-channel strategies, organizational structures need to change to support those new strategies. I am a huge proponent of breaking up most e-commerce silo  organizations and integrating online and in-store marketing and merchandising teams to ensure a common vision and voice across channels. For IT, though, I actually recommend the opposite approach. I believe technology  professionals who work full time (or near full-time) on the e-commerce site should report directly to the head of e-commerce.

While at a high level is seems like technology should have the same kind of continuity as marketing and merchandising, I believe a close look tells a different story.

Here’s why e-commerce IT is significantly different from traditional IT:

In e-commerce, the business is technology

Traditionally, IT creates tools that help employees be more productive and efficient. However, in e-commerce, IT is actually creating software designed to generate revenue. E-commerce “stores” are really self-service software  applications designed to help customers perform a service — in this case it’s to buy the products and services we sell.  Intuit has Quicken; Microsoft has Word and Excel; retailers have our e-commerce sites. We really need to think about  our sites more as software products and organize our teams in a product management type of structure.

Also, a particular pet peeve of mine is when IT folks refer to those in other functions of the company as “the business.”  Just that reference alone insinuates that IT is not a crucial part of the overall business and creates a separation that  frequently leaves IT coming across as second class citizens, which they are not. While I’ve never liked “the business”  reference in any circumstance, it’s doubly bad in e-commerce where success absolutely depends on technology team  members actively working as part of the business.

Self-service applications require a different mindset

Working on an e-commerce application that is designed to be used directly by customers requires a very different  mindset than what is typically required when working on applications that support employees. Even when the  underlying technology is similar, the mindset required is substantially different. New employee applications usually  come with training programs and manuals. Moreover, employees are ultimately forced to use the app; they get used to it and get incrementally better at using it over time through daily usage. Customers, however, don’t get the benefit of manuals and training programs. They’re on their own. And if the experience doesn’t satisfy them, they give up and the sale is lost.

Site functionality and customer experience are major components of the e-commerce business strategy

The website application is a key differentiator for the business, and customer experience is hugely driven by site functionality. While functions other than technology certainly contribute to an e-commerce site’s success or failure, there can be little doubt that the quality of the technology is a massive contributing factor.

E-commerce is 100% dependent on technology to be open for business.

While technology is critical in all areas of the business, most retailers have offline contingencies for stores so they can  continue to make sales even if the system is down. Websites obviously don’t have an offline mode.

Web businesses are still immature and need considerable agility and flexibility to mature as quickly as possible

For many absolutely legitimate reasons, most IT organizations at multi-channel retailers have significant (and some might say onerous) processes in place to manage technology requests and roadmap prioritization. Because requests for technology improvements come from all corners of the company, it’s important for CIOs to ensure they are spending their resources on work that is thoroughly vetted and likely to generate the highest return on investment for the company. But given the absolute dependence of the e-commerce business on technology, typical IT prioritization and allocation processes are too slow for e-commerce businesses that need to be able to adjust quickly to issues that arise with customer experience.

The e-commerce competitive marketplace innovates far quicker than the brick & mortar marketplace

The CEO of a pure-play e-commerce company is in basically the same role as the head of e-commerce at a multi-channel retailer. If for no other reason than there is no alternative, the CIO of a pure-play reports to the CEO. This reporting structure gives the pure-play leader a leg up in agility and the ability to react to customer needs. In a multi-channel retailer, the CIO must split time between many functions of the business, and I find e-commerce often gets time allocated in a ratio roughly equal to its financial contribution to the business. While such an allocation is understandable given everything on a busy CIO’s plate, I believe this lessened focus can lead to stunted growth and lost ground to competitors such as Amazon who are more devoted to improving their software application and increasing their customers’ satisfaction with their site customer experience.

I believe if a head of e-commerce is to be truly held accountable for the success of the site, he or she should have  appropriate authority over such a major contributor to the success of the site.

So why should the head of e-commerce have authority over e-commerce IT and not e-commerce marketing and merchandising?

To me, it’s all about what faces the customer and what doesn’t. A brand should be clear to its customers about who it is and what it stands for, so continuity in marketing and merchandising trumps silo control over those aspects of the business. Site functionality has no parallels in other parts of the organization. Since it is both unique and customer facing, I believe the head of the online channel should maintain the authority to develop and execute the technical strategy for his or her business unit when it directly affects the customer relationship.

I’ll add this final point: I’ve lived through many different org structures surrounding e-commerce IT, and the only times I’ve found the pros to outweigh the cons of an org structure have been when e-commerce IT was part of the e-commerce operation and reporting to the head of e-commerce.

What do you think? Am I completely misguided? What structures have you seen work and not work? What structure do you think is ideal?

Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell


Home | About