Choosing the right e-commerce integrator: Successfully selecting your partner

November 9th, 2015 by Azur Digital

In the first of this 2-part article, we shared key considerations for building an effective multichannel commerce RFP that will facilitate your integration partner search. We will now provide some insights on important factors that will help you identify and select the right e-commerce integrator as part of your RFP.

Select the e-commerce solution before issuing your RFP

As previously mentioned, any solution out there could in theory deliver the functionalities you require. The question is: at what customization cost? Customization efforts typically account for the largest part of the implementation cost of a multichannel commerce project (not taking into consideration the cost to set-up the operations). This fact alone highlights the importance of identifying the right e-commerce platform before searching for the integrator to implement it.

Your business plan and priority requirements should help you narrow your search to a specific type of e-commerce solution

Your online sales ambitions and the budget you have defined for the project should enable you to identify the e-commerce platform class that theoretically corresponds. In addition, the main challenges of your project (see Part 1) should be addressed by the out-of-the-box solution, whilst your other requirements (less critical) could be covered by means of customization.

It is also important to take into account your roadmap to prevent the scrapping risk coming with a platform that might not be sufficiently future-proof or scalable (for instance in case you plan to launch an international website or other brands). We also advise you to consider the license renewal and support costs, as well as training requirements to avoid possibly costly surprises.

The choice of solution is largely influenced by the business plan and project philosophy.

Your project philosophy will help identify preferred options regarding license and business models, implementation, operations, maintenance etc. For example, will you primarily use the solution’s front-office or will you need a platform with strong product and order management capabilities? Do you have the financial means to develop on a licensed-software or the in-house product management skills needed to maintain a complex module-based setup?

Save yourself unnecessary confusion comparing apples to oranges

Pre-selecting an e-commerce solution will enable focusing your RFP efforts on assessing integrators on the aspects that are key to your project success, rather than comparing feature lists. Why review and evaluate a solution that is not known for its PIM capability when you carry a product inventory of more than 50,000 SKU’s?

Concentrating your integrator search on the right solution will allow an in-depth evaluation of each response, thus providing you more opportunities to cross-examine and challenge candidates. In the end, this will ensure the greatest accuracy and pertinence of the proposal you retain, meaning it will increase chances of meeting budget and timeline objectives.

Extract of Benchmark of ecommerce solutions, courtesy of NBS System (click on the image for full version).

Committing to a particular e-commerce platform is a major decision that should be informed. Therefore, you may consider issuing an RFI to a competent integrator for each of the solutions you shortlisted – we do not recommend shortlisting more than two – or hire an independent consultancy to analyze your requirements and recommend the right platform for your project. It could also be of value to ask for a demonstration of how the solution can meet your requirements, rather than a sales demo.

Customize only where required

With enough customization efforts, any integrator of a given e-commerce solution could on paper answer your business needs. There are usually several possible paths and ways to meet them, some more complicated and expensive than others. Making use of custom code and modules typically implies much development and testing days. Beyond adding development cost, creating features that are too far away from what the platform was originally designed to do brings a higher level of risk and complexity to your project.

It obviously is in the integrator’s interest to reuse past experiences, knowledge and developments where possible. This is why we strongly recommend that when conducting your RFP, you search for an integrator that minimizes customization by:

  1. Leveraging out-of-the-box features wherever possible,
  2. Otherwise using modules, provided they correspond to your project philosophy (this could be editors’, third-parties’ or integrator’s modules), and
  3. Developing new features from scratch only when no other solution can be found.

Key to preventing project cost overruns is staying as close as possible to the out-of-the box product. However, depending on your budget, you may consider investing in specific developments for features that are unique to your industry or that improve the customer experience in order to provide you with a competitive advantage.

The devil is in the detail

Custom-development systematically requires specification and testing efforts, both of which can be lengthy and costly. You should also evaluate how future-proof the bespoke development is: will you be able to reuse the piece of code with future software releases of the solution, or will this require further development and therefore significant re-testing? What will happen if a module or part of your ecosystem gets discontinued, or if you change the ERP?

From experience, the more customized a retail e-commerce website is, the stronger product management skill sets it demands to make it evolve.

The integrator’s experience and fit with your project philosophy will be key to the evolution and success of your multichannel business

Implementing multichannel commerce will touch the heart of your retail business and affect many of your existing systems, operations and processes (customer service, POS, supply chain and fulfillment processes etc.). For this reason, we cannot stress enough the importance of choosing an integrator with demonstrated multichannel commerce implementation experience. Having previously integrated e-commerce in a similar environment, and in particular with the ERP you are running, will be a significant plus, it will help the integrator propose proven solutions and also, more accurately estimate the required effort and timeline.

It isn’t so much the size of the company which matters, but more its relationship with the vendor and the number of in-house experts of the chosen solution

In addition, the integrator’s history with the solution you choose and relationship to its vendor can be a game-changer. A partner implementing solely this specific solution is likely to provide valuable advice with regard to minimizing customization. This can also greatly affect the level of vendor support and even the pricing of the solution.

Lastly, be vigilant regarding partnership level, in particular in a region with limited multichannel commerce penetration such as the Middle East. Silver or Gold status at global level does not necessarily mean that the resources that will be allocated to your project will have the experience you will need and deserve. Some might be locally based, for instance in Dubai, and simply trained and certified for the solution, so it is important to diligently assess the level of expertise and experience.

Aim for budget fit rather than budget savings

It is easy to get lured by the bidding price. As mentioned in Part 1, the price proposed by the integrator should merely be seen as an anticipated estimate. The price will most likely change during the discovery phase (sometimes significantly) and it will inevitably increase during project execution due to change requests.

Another important selection criterion when choosing the integrator is the fit with your project philosophy. On that note, past regional experience is invaluable (e.g. MENA experience, or at least having worked in emerging markets); it helps evaluate cultural fit and avoid surprises later in the project. You should also choose a development methodology you are comfortable with and which corresponds with your philosophy (for instance Agile rather than Waterfall).

Your e-commerce integrator is not just a supplier, but a business partner too

Beyond building your e-commerce channel, your integrator’s role will be to accompany you as you roll out your multichannel commerce roadmap. Therefore this is a crucial partner-role that must be able to meaningfully support and contribute to your multichannel retail transformation. We recommend choosing a partner that corresponds with your strategic vision and multichannel commercial ambitions, which has the capability to support them over the long-run and aligns with your way of working.

Changes and evolutions will obviously come at a cost, and man-day rates can vary greatly between types of partners for the same solution. This is a point to consider in your selection process, beyond the bidding price itself. Also, pay close attention to the integrator’s responsiveness, availability, resource commitment and quality of communication during the RFP response process. These are often indicators of what to expect during the implementation phase and beyond.