By Andrew Heddle, Group Channel Director, Ecommerce at VML
My career path quite literally didn’t exist when I was at university studying English and Philosophy in the late 1980’s. The internet wasn’t known or heard of outside of academic and government circles and its massive impact on our lives couldn’t have been imagined or predicted then, and digital commerce has always been and remains unpredictable.
The one constant in my career has been that my business cards have always been out of date as the speed of the industry has outstripped the ability of job descriptions to keep up. (Thank goodness for LinkedIn and the ability to update as we go). Every role I have stepped into since my first ecommerce role in 2003 has been a new role for the organization and the ability to embrace and work through ambiguity and to learn by experience (making a lot of mistakes) has been the fuel that has kept me going and learning through the successes and mishaps.
My first online session took place at an internet café called “Cyberia” in Manchester, England in 1996 and I spent my time researching sandwich recipes for the coffee and sandwich chain I had just started up. A more alert person would have realized then that the ability to discover sandwich recipes from around the world, was merely the tip of the iceberg of what the internet could accomplish, and that as an early adopter I was in a great position to build a business in the first wave of the ecommerce boom.
Sadly, I ignored the promise, continued to make coffee for a living and my career in ecommerce didn’t begin in earnest until eight years later when I was given the job of coordinating the European ecommerce operations for the UK mobile phone retailer Carphone Warehouse. The first “dotcom” boom had turned to bust, but it was evident that at the very least ecommerce was going to be a meaningful channel for all businesses and particularly for retailers.
My qualifications for that role, were simply that I had experience running call center sales teams, and at the time, with internet connections still very slow many of our sites were non-transactional brochure-ware, with a large phone number posted in the top right hand corner to enable sales. The main ecommerce KPIs were the number of calls we created, who they routed to and how effectively they sold. UX design and testing centered on the memorability, size and color of the telephone number.
As untechnical as it sounds, this proved to be a great learning ground, as I witnessed the growth of online sales through the lens of seven different markets all at very different stages of maturity. In Sweden, pretty much all the distribution, fraud and payment infrastructure was in place to enable sales as we would recognize them today. In Portugal there was nothing, and in between were any number of different scenarios and experiments in online sales, marketing and fulfilment.
Having moved on from that role to run a large mobile phone pure-play in the UK I got my big break in 2007 when I moved to the US to head up online and direct sales for a joint venture between the company I worked for (The Carphone Warehouse) and Best Buy.
I arrived in the US in the first week of July that year, just as the iPhone launched in the US. (Possibly the best-timed career move since Ringo Starr joined the Beatles). After protracted period getting the infrastructure built sales rocketed on the back of a strong customer proposition, the strength of Best Buy’s brand and of course the polarized battle between Apple and Samsung.
For a complex sale like a mobile phone and contract, call centers still played an important role, but the user experience online was growing in importance and my colleagues and I spent most of our time trying to improve any and every aspect of the self-serve proposition using analytics and usability testing, as well as developing true Omni-channel capabilities for fulfilment and inventory sourcing.
Just as no one in 1989 could have predicted the impact of the Internet, few predicted the truly transformational effect of mobile Internet in 2007 when I moved to the US. Mobile changed everything about ecommerce to the extent that in many regards there actually is no such thing as ecommerce or digital commerce any more, but rather commerce in a digital world.
Whether in business to business, or in consumer fields, customers are fully enabled by digital technologies to buy anything they want in almost any format they want it, at any time they want it. This means that practitioners in our field need to be broad enough to understand all aspects of the consumer purchase journey as well as to be able to dive deep into the details of any aspect of the field that influences the outcome, whether that be fulfilment, insights or customer engagement on owned or unowned properties.
One thing is clear is that ecommerce has moved from being a channel-centric business mission to an engagement-centric mission, with the winners able to create propositions and experiences that cause customers to become habitual visitors and users of the experience. Great experiences precede great sales numbers.
After 13 years starting and running ecommerce businesses, I moved over to VML, a large global digital marketing agency last year to create, build and run our digital commerce practice. This move has introduced me to an incredibly diverse group of clients, with unique and differentiated commerce challenges and opportunities. The opportunity to step out of the day-to-day sales-driven fray, and to really look at the things that make a difference in digital commerce through the lens of businesses in every sector and with the full range of digital sophistication has sharpened my views and belief that the next era of digital commerce is truly the era of customer engagement.
What fulfilment was to ecommerce in the early years, engagement (on mobile especially) is now to the heart and center of any effective experience. Organizations that line their digital commerce efforts up with their channels rather than their lifecycle marketing are destined to invest in the wrong experiences driven by the wrong KPIs. Digital winners are the companies that are building their businesses to enable themselves to deepen their relationships with their customers over time by developing new opportunities to serve them.
LTV > AOV
In the course of my career to date, ecommerce has morphed from a simple form of direct sales to an evolved combination of communication, conversation and commerce. For all of us in digital commerce, the central challenge is to continually upgrade our thinking and skills to remain discerning as the rate of change and experimentation accelerate.