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On the history of eCommerce Stakeholder Management

January 14, 2011 4 comments

I wanted to combine a few observations based on different blogposts I’ve read and conversations and experiences I’ve had over the past months. The problem is that of  “Stakeholder Management” in eCommerce projects.

Image of me failing to help a client manage stakeholders

On twitter a month ago or so I had a conversation with Elwira Kotowska, on the normal strains between IT and Marketing that made me think. Last week I read Ylva Lindbergs post on “Gesso“. Gesso is, apparently, what you use for priming paintings to make the color stick, or translated to consulting: the trust in the client relationship. Go read it.

Done? Here’s the part that turned me on:

The feeling the client gets that s/he’s in good, professional hands. That s/he can stop being scared – because s/he’s terrified – and with good reason. S/he’s bought something from you that’s so important to get right, something that will define how others see him/her, something that can make or break him/her, without seeing it beforehand. Terrified. That’s why s/he instinctively wants to regain a little bit of control, by telling you to centre the logotype because s/he’s asked around a little and a guy in Sales said he just doesn’t like it to the right. Or by treating your best, bravest ideas like they were a separatist group’s demands for independence: like something that should be negotiated down until it’s completely toothless. Handling fears.

Very eloquently put by Ylva, and anyone in consulting would recognize the situation regardless of industry. Each industry has it’s own set of special challenges, but I think eCommerce and especially Multichannel initiatives wins the stakeholder complexity game.

Let’s look at the history of IT going back to before the internet. Already in ancient Greece, IT helped businesses solve their problems. However before the internet, IT and people working in IT had a mostly internal role. It was all about improving internal processes and building systems, no one had heard the word “brand”. Besides, computers were new, as with the advent of any new technology there was fear and low understanding of the technology in most departments. To Marketing, the interactions with IT had mostly to do with the printer not working.

Enter the early internet, 1990’s. Tipping point, every company gets a “homepage”. Management may have picked up that that was important, or at least allowed it, but who should own it? IT? Marketing? (anyone else?) That new interested guy/girl at Random Dept got to own it and someone at IT learned HTML and designed it. It had an image, a <blink>-tag and contact info.

An example of early use of advanced HTML features to optimize customer experiences

Time progresses. The web is slowly turning into a sales channel, and a customer service channel, and it’s importance increases for recruiting, investor relations, PR,  Partners, … and … and brand building. Meanwhile, Management has understood the need to invest and seen the low customer acquisition or distribution cost that justifies hiring a small team. That interested person at Random Dept have all of a sudden transformed into Head of Online or Online Sales Manager. (Probably reporting to VP Marketing or Sales). The potential is there but for historical and practical reasons, Online is still a peripheral vertical. Changing it is fine, no-one really cares about it. VP Marketing is happy as long as the printers are working so IT has got time to build their own eCommerce system. The focus has been more on automating internal processes maybe not so much on customer experience. At least the <blink> tag is no more.

Tipping point again. 2003 – 2008, in industry after industry, the web turns into a key enabler for virtually all departments’ core business processes, it becomes an important sales and marketing channel. The website suddenly gets more eyeballs per month than the expensive TV commercials and VP Marketing approves a SEM budget. Driven by changing customer behavior the web moves to the dead center of the business, but is still supported by a small part of the Marketing department not directly represented at the VP level.

Changing consumer behavior

Changing consumer behavior is driving organisational change, example from retail above.

In the late 2000, driven by customer demands and untapped potential, the time is right in many organisations for a larger strategic initiative around the web. Focus on Acquisition, hit your sales targets, create a road map says Management. And there we are, with a home grown system, a peripheral organization and a mandate to do something important, kind of get online the same status as the other “real” channels. Cool.

“Go get the requirements, make sure to involve the right people. Build a new digital commerce platform. Oh, and I don’t like the logo to be on the right

So who’s the right people, and will they help when online brings change? Is the solution a powerful eCommerce department that breaks out of Marketing/Sales? I’m not sure that would help. All I know is that every client I’ve seen where the web is being put at the core of the business will walk into territories where the decisions impact everyone, and probably upsets some. HR, Finance, IR, PR, Marketing, Partners, IT and so on. And everyone have opinions and their priorities. And being Head of Online in that situation means interacting, convincing, persuading, soothing, begging, understanding and handling all of them.

It’s very far from easy, but Stakeholder Management is one of the critical success factors in any larger web initiative, no doubt. So before you start make sure to have enough Gesso, need to save some for your client’s clients. Who’s not a stakeholder?