14 Steps to set up a successful e-commerce plan
Whether you’re launching an e-commerce business from scratch, transitioning from a bricks-and-mortar company or adding e-commerce to your existing business, you’ll need to design a detailed plan for success – and then follow it.
Why you need a plan to successfully implement e-commerce
Even though it takes time and effort to put together, you wouldn’t start a new business without a good business plan. It’s critically important because it helps you clarify exactly where you’re heading and how you’ll get there. In the process you identify opportunities you can take advantage of, and get clear on what resources and knowledge you will need along the way.
When you implement e-commerce, you are essentially starting a “new” business (even if you’re merely transitioning). That new business needs its own business plan.
Your e-commerce plan serves several purposes, for example to:
- Set goals and priorities
- Establish business milestones
- Securing financing
- Avoid costly mistakes
- Create alignment with other existing channels, partners or owners
Rather than wasting effort, time and money finding your way as you go, draw up a roadmap right up front.
A model for a successful e-commerce plan
According to Swiss business theorist, Alexander Osterwalder, there are several important aspects to consider when putting together your e-commerce plan:
- What key activities will your business carry out?
- What is your unique selling point (USP)?
- What resources do you need?
- Who will you partner with?
- What channels will you use to market your business?
- What do your different types of customers want and need?
- What expenses will you incur?
- Where will your income come from?
He calls this the business-model-canvas as can be seen below:
Our 14 steps for defining a successful e-commerce plan
Step 1: Determine the ‘why’
Before you start, you need to be crystal clear on exactly what’s happening in your business, in your industry and with your competitors. A SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) is a good place to start, and will help you clarify why a move into e-commerce is so important. Perhaps your business hasn’t been performing as well or growing as fast as you would like. Or maybe your customers are moving across to your competitors, who are better meeting their changing expectations.
Step 2: Clarify your value proposition
What makes you stand out from your competitors? What problem are you solving for your customers? Who exactly are you solving the problem for? If you have an existing business, you may have explored some of these questions when you launched. Things change though, so it’s worth revisiting them, especially in context of your move into e-commerce.
Step 3: Determine your customer’s requirements
Knowing who your customers are and then catering specifically for their needs and wants is essential. Whether you run a B2B or B2C business will also make a difference here. Segment your customers so you know exactly who you’re dealing with. That information will tell you a lot, for example, what products and prices they are looking for, where they browse online, what communication channels they prefer and what type of marketing grabs their attention. It will also give you a good idea of how they like to pay and what delivery options they prefer. Keep checking what you think you know as customer needs do change.
Step 4: Define the e-commerce business model
Use the understanding you now have of your customers and products to define your sources of revenue. Also get clear on how the finances will work. To do this, you’ll need to run cash flow and income statements, and create a final budget. Then you’ll be ready to decide whether your business model can stay the same or needs to change.
Some companies run their e-commerce as a separate business, with different prices and processes, while others neglect it in favour of their bricks-and-mortar business. We believe both of these are a mistake. At the very least, you should plan to run your e-commerce business on a par with other channels and integrate it into all touchpoints. All aspects of the business should appear seamless to your customer.
Step 5: Clarify impacted business processes
Once you know what your e-commerce business model looks like, you can assess how your processes will be impacted (or if your business is new, what processes you need). Start by determining if your current processes, and the skills, tools and other resources you have in-house, are capable of handling the new work.
If not, decide what changes are needed. For example, your fulfilment processes might need to be restructured and your customer service team upskilled. Your e-commerce site needs to be designed and built, and the technology managed, and you’ll need a digital communication strategy. Each of these things will also attract a cost, which needs to be included in your budget.
Once you know what’s required, consider outsourcing those aspects where you don’t have the capacity or expertise in-house. In our experience, the processes below can be effectively outsourced if need be.
Step 6: Identify the best e-commerce / IT model
Depending on the size of your business, your budget and how hands-on you wish to be, you could choose to own the software or have it hosted. If you decide to have it hosted, there are different ways to do this. For example:
- Shared: You share a server with other websites.
- Dedicated: You have your own server.
- VPS (Virtual Private Server): This is a middle ground where a physical server is still shared, but it is divided into separate virtual machines, of which one is yours.
- Cloud: This is similar to VPS but your site is housed on a network spread across multiple virtual computers.
Once you decide on your hosting model, you’ll be able to work out an e-commerce technology budget, including equipment, maintenance, skills and support needed.
Step 7: Determine the integration strategy
Your integration strategy needs to align with your business strategy. The ultimate aim is to streamline your business processes for efficiency, while fulfilling the needs of your e-commerce customers. This all relies on data.
Since this data is probably already held in your ERP, your e-commerce site and your ERP should work in tandem. Critical decisions need to be made around where the different data elements are stored and managed (“owned”). For example, e-commerce product data and prices can be held in the ERP or PIM system, while inventory could be held in the ERP or another integrated system.
This will also affect where business processes need to happen, such as product, inventory or customer information updates. There should always be one source of truth. Done right, you will eliminate errors, duplications and delays in your business going forward.
Although the ERP is generally the main system our e-commerce software integrates with, it should ideally integrate with at least some of the following systems and programs too:
- Marketplaces like Amazon, eBay, Walmart, PriceCheck, Facebook, Google Shopping, etc
- Shipping or delivery solutions like SmartFreight and Parcelninja
- EDI for larger corporate purchases
- POS for in-store purchases
- Supply, marketing or PR partners
- CRM, so there is one source of customer data
- Marketing integrations are unlimited, with the four listed above being very important
- Other integrations are also unlimited, but the ones listed are important, with sales force management being most pertinent to B2B companies
Step 8: Choose your e-commerce software
Now that you know what kind of solution will be the best fit for your business, you will have narrowed down the range of software choices available to you. Changing software mid-stream is extremely disruptive, so explore these options in depth up front to identify the best one for you and your customers.
These are the kinds of criteria you can look at:
- Features, such as responsive design, customer reviews, wish lists and loyalty programmes. For B2B, look at customer specific tiered pricing, quoting and repeat order functionality. See more B2C features here and B2B ones here.
- Software costs
- Hosting options and costs
- Integration options
- Payment options
- Responsiveness, plus processes such as payment and forms should be optimised for mobile use
- Self-service, so customers, especially B2B ones, can manage their own accounts and access all the product, order and inventory details they need
- Scalability, so your site can effortlessly manage more traffic and purchasing volume when your business grows
- Encryption security to protect your own and your customer’s data, including full site SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) and PCI compliance for at least your payment gateway
- Personalisation to match your customers’ needs
Step 9: Select an e-commerce implementation partner
Your implementation partner should be able to advise you on everything from branding, content and SEO issues, through to user experience and the latest trends. They should also be able to provide custom programming if necessary. You will be working closely with them on an ongoing basis, so do your due diligence before making a decision.
Ask if you can try out their demos and notice how their support team responds to queries and concerns. Do some research online to see how other users have found working with them. Take your time and ask questions.
Step 10: Pull it all together into a strategic plan
Use the Osterwalder one-page model described above to pull the plan together. When you specifically identify and run all the income and expenses involved, it should be easy to see if your plan so far will be financially viable. Experiment with different options by adjusting the finances to create scenarios which may be helpful or attractive to your stakeholders.
Share the final document or business plan, with attached financials, with your various stakeholders, including your Board of Directors, mentors, investors and suppliers. This will help you gain their buy-in and/or allow you to fine-tune your plan based on their feedback.
Step 11: Set up a cross functional team with a clear (and invested) senior sponsor
Tempting as it may be to consider e-commerce as purely an IT project, the reality is that it involves your entire business. Identify all your key stakeholders up front so they have an opportunity to give their input. For example:
- Inventory / stock control
- Fulfillment / shipment
- Customer service
- Sales team (if B2B)
- Key customers and suppliers (eventually, when you are ready for them)
The manager you choose should have strong business and project management skills, and be comfortable with an agile approach. He/she also needs to care deeply about the project and have the drive and influence necessary to overcome any challenges that arise along the way.
Step 12: Develop a project plan
Referring back to your strategic plan from Step 10, document in detail all the activities that need to happen. Allocate realistic time frames and budgets, and identify the person responsible for every step of the process. Be sure to include time for training, testing, approval and sign-off from all stakeholders at regular intervals along the way.
Step 13: Start building your e-commerce website
Although building the actual website for a big e-commerce project may take anything from 4 weeks to 4 months, the full implementation of the project from a business perspective can take much longer. Data and circumstances can change within that timeframe, and we therefore recommend that you take an agile approach – building, implementing and improving as you go. That way you can always see exactly what’s happening as the site is being developed and can make (reasonable) adjustments to the plan if necessary.
Also, if the most important parts are always being built first, you should be able to work with those while you wait for the other less critical parts to be completed. As early as possible, get input from your customers and suppliers and use the feedback to fine-tune the process.
Step 14: Launch your e-commerce site – then get back to work
The launch of an e-commerce site is vital to its success. In our experience of companies that do this well, a very senior, yet hands-on, business manager tests the site and all its associated processes in detail before the launch. That manager is then fully involved in the first 6 months of running the site, overseeing its integrations, and monitoring the impact on and results of the fulfillment centre, the customer service team and any other teams that are particularly affected.
This firm hand is involved until the change is embedded and working smoothly. By then it may well be time to assess your customers’ ever-changing needs again and decide if further adjustments are needed to stay on top of them.
The bottom line…
Launching a successful e-commerce business takes motivation and dedicated work from your whole team. Following the right processes will help ease the way so you arrive at your goal with the minimum number of bumps in the road (note: there will always be bumps). The investment of time and energy is well worth it though, and you’ll see the rewards in your financial results before you know it.