As the CEO of a software company that helps brands grow revenues from e-commerce, you might expect me to begin by telling you that technology is the most critical component for success. Sure, it’s important - better tools give you a competitive advantage - but technology cannot single-handedly smash your e-commerce growth target. Technology, data and reporting are only as powerful as the organization’s ability to take action. Technology alone doesn’t solve problems; teams must be skilled and interconnected, and processes should be seamless across the business.
At eStoreMedia we work with e-commerce brand teams in over 50 markets around the world every day. We see and work with each of them at a close distance. Some of them are extremely advanced in e-commerce sales execution while others are still evolving their organization. It follows that some are more successful than others when it comes to sustaining market share in online channels.
In my earlier career, I worked for some of the world’s leading consumer brands. In my experience, even the best software can’t help you reach the Holy Grail in e-commerce sales unless your business also achieves a level of excellence in two other areas at the same time: team performance and internal processes.
From my personal experience in the trenches and from working with many of today’s e-commerce brand teams, I'm going to outline what I believe to be the top 10 qualities that make a great e-commerce team.
1. Omni-skilled people are required
Traditional brand teams are made up of experts in marketing, sales, market research, analysis, trade marketing and so on. They will each have achieved a high level of education in a business-related subject at university and may also have further professional qualifications, but they will all have chosen a specific area of expertise. On the other hand, e-commerce brand teams are required to operate in a much more integrated way, often with fewer people bringing the same wide range of skills to the team. Frequently, e-commerce brand teams are made up of individuals with cross-disciplinary knowledge and experience. For example, the marketer must have some understanding of analysis or market research, and the salesperson must have a better understanding of brand communication as they are often responsible for content in e-retailer stores. In other words, each person must be omni-skilled.
So how do you build an efficient team quickly, in line with market opportunity? Transitioning offline experts into online roles is neither easy nor fast: not all skills are transferable and new skills will need to be developed. On the other hand, a strategy to hire digital natives, who may be less experienced in the sector or lack traditional sales skills, can have its pitfalls.
Consumer brands need to recognize the need for wider expertise, proactively seeking out external candidates who are already omni-skilled, while investing heavily in internal skills transfer and development.
2. Less “gut feel”, more analytics
e-Commerce is full of data. This means that “gut feel” can be more frequently validated with data. The data also allows you to see opportunities you might otherwise have missed. The visibility digital shelf data is able to give you is incomparable; if a specific field returns data that does not meet your expectations, there are probably tested methods for you to make a positive change. Ideally, any e-commerce team member should feel at ease with data and be capable of digging into it to find opportunities for positive improvements. Like anywhere else in business, “gut feeling” is needed, but data consciousness is critical.
E-commerce seems to have a lot in common with the concept of the lean start-up, where analysts set a specific set of hypotheses (based on a hunch), define relevant success measures and constantly iterate to improve their performance.
3. Hands-on, in-house resources
Many brands are tempted to outsource a lot of e-commerce-related activities as they don't feel confident doing it all in house. I can understand the appeal when organizations realize they need to adapt quickly, but it is a risky strategy: without a good level of internal expertise, brands risk appointing a mediocre external service that will not allow them to build competitive advantage, consequently losing market share to the brands that build superior internal capabilities.
In my experience, the most successful brands are those that master end-to-end processes in house and only later decide which activities can be outsourced and what is expected by way of the Service Level Agreement.
4. Talent is precious
The coronavirus pandemic significantly accelerated the e-commerce industry. Most brands have now realized that this is a very important sales channel that they can’t ignore. It is not true that a great employee is 10 times better than a good one: in e-commerce, a great employee is 100 times better than a good one. Now is the time for brands to shape their e-commerce culture, processes and reporting style. This requires super-strong talent including people with vision. Average people will not be able to create these frameworks.
5. e-Commerce is “always on”
Historically, brand teams pay the most attention to new product launches. Naturally, new launches should represent substantial sales growth. However, when it comes to perfecting the e-commerce digital shelf, there are always dozens of opportunities within the existing line-up that may, when addressed, easily exceed the sales potential of new launches. e-Commerce brand teams often balance their attention between base line-up and new launches.
6. Keeping pace in a fast environment, 24/7
e-Commerce teams managing portfolios on fast-paced platforms like Amazon have enormous flexibility to make instant changes to how their products are presented, priced and promoted. Such channels, while enabling brand teams to take immediate actions to outsmart the competition, can also be exhausting to manage. e-Commerce brand teams can manipulate their strategies after business hours and on weekends, challenging the traditional concept of “normal business hours”. It’s not unusual for underdog brands to outsmart market leaders in activating their i-media presence or promotions while bigger counterparts are sleeping.
7. Sales people must also be masters of brand communication
Product packaging plays an amazing role in driving conversion in offline stores. It is carefully designed to communicate the brand’s benefits, help with portfolio navigation and to set brands apart from their competitor products. In online stores it is product content that must take over these responsibilities and more - it is not possible to smell or touch the product. On the other hand, digital content is interactive and enables shoppers to receive more detailed information about a product. Herein lies a challenge: in offline stores, the product packaging is fully managed by brand experts who are at ease with brand communication, but e-commerce is more complex. Executing digital content online is often done by sales specialists who may not be proficient with brand communication. It creates a lot of risk and therefore it’s an area which requires significant attention.
8. Shelf planograms are replaced by in-store search
There are no physical and fixed shelves in e-commerce. Products are presented on lists shown as a result of in-store search. The ranking will be decided by the e-retailer’s own algorithm. It is impossible to plan precisely where the product will be placed and which products will surround it. E-commerce experts must have skills in Search Engine Optimization and be prepared to develop different strategies tuned to different e-retailer search algorithms. They must understand which keywords in each of their categories are the most powerful and what drives the position or rank in search. Crucially, they need tools to improve their position in order to achieve better visibility: more traffic equals more sales.
9. In-store media requires different skills
E-retailers are becoming more and more sophisticated with their in-store i-media management systems. At the time of writing, Amazon is the third largest advertising medium (ca. 60% of $ spent vs Google and Meta in the US). Advertising your product on Amazon makes a fantastic impact on sales. e-Commerce becomes yet another performance marketing tool that requires sophisticated knowledge and hands-on management. It’s important to note that there are still a lot of e-stores that are much less sophisticated than Amazon and they require more relationship-type skills rather than analytical skills. This should be reflected in the skills of the team.
10. Microsoft Office suite of tools is not enough
The power of Microsoft Office suite is unquestionable. It became a business standard for a reason. However when it comes to e-commerce, Excel, Word and PowerPoint are not sufficient to build robust ‘line of business’ processes for e-commerce teams. They do not help teams monitor their products online, automate decisions or intuitively close gaps in execution. Brands must build their e-commerce processes around more sophisticated dedicated software to minimize go-to-market time and maximize sales opportunities. This also means that e-commerce experts must also be fluent in using popular e-commerce solutions and understand how to maximize their potential in an organization. They must also know how to integrate these solutions to streamline processes and improve productivity.
To summarize, brands that expect to obtain market leadership must invest heavily in their e-commerce teams. If I was to condense all of the above guidelines into one, it would be this:
Find and hire the best people in the market, who bring relevant experience and can implement a structure made of people, processes and technology.
To lead your category in e-commerce excellence, you will need to find the best people for the job and empower them with the tools they need to be successful. What strategies will you put into place to build a world-class e-commerce team?