Questions to Ask When Selecting Your E-Commerce Platform Solution Provider
by Marek Sodolski
17 Sep 2019 • 8 min read
Introducing a new or refreshing an existing e-commerce platform constitutes a substantial project for most organisations: it usually requires management attention for several months, binds key people from various departments, requires significant funding and poses risk to the business. Therefore it is crucial to choose the right platform and the right solution provider.
Each of these choices is difficult to make and has serious consequences. We are encountering many important questions in professional practice that help companies to better understand potential solution providers and make more informed decisions.
We share with you the topics often discussed during such conversations and a few tips on what to pay attention to during such conversations.
1. How competent is your team?
It is the people who will make your project successful — or will fail to do so. Your solution provider’s team members are essential in this regard.
A “competent team” is:
All of these characteristics are necessary for achieving and sustaining high team performance.
Learn more about your solution provider and their people by asking questions such as these:
- What motivates your team members? How do you sustain this motivation?
- How do your teams acquire relevant knowledge and keep it current? What does your training process look like?
- What projects have your team members delivered successfully? Were there any project failures?
- What does a typical project team structure look like? What does your delivery process look like? How will you adapt both to my specific situation?
2. How do you ensure continuity in my project?
Some companies move their best business analysts and solution architects to the next opportunity as soon as the project is set up. Some experience high level of staff attrition. Ensuring the right level of experience, continuity of staffing and finding a way to deal with staffing changes as they happen will be critical for your project’s success.
- Ensure that the solution provider assigns well-trained and experienced team members to your project—and define criteria for well-trained and experienced together with your solution provider.
- Ask solution providers to explain their staffing practices.
- Ask solution providers about their level of staff attrition.
- Staffing changes will happen. Ask your solution provider how they will handle changes under their control.
3. How do you balance on-site and remote work?
Colocation is not key for success and most projects involve members who are based in different geographic locations. This is true for service providers, but increasingly also for clients. This geographic distribution of teams poses challenges (for example, communication and alignment), but also creates large opportunities (for example, involvement of experts based elsewhere, access to a larger pool of qualified people).
Nonetheless, high-performance teams require people to get to know each other and build relationships as well as trust. In addition, the early phase of a project requires intense information exchange, communication, collaboration and alignment.
All of this works better if project members can be brought together in the same location to start a project. Furthermore, relationships and alignment need active maintenance, which also greatly benefits if people periodically meet in person. Travel is time and cost intensive, so we want to make the most of these on-site collaboration phases.
But how can you ensure that people effectively work together across geographic—and often cultural—distances? How can you ensure that requirements will be interpreted correctly and implemented adequately? How can you ensure effective communication? How can it be made cost and time efficient?
How can you make sure that your service provider’s staff are available when you need them? How can you get hold of key project members on short notice?
- Look for a solution provider with proven experience in successfully delivering projects in geographically dispersed environments.
- Ask your solution provider to explain their thinking on on-site vs. remote work? What do they think works well in a remote setting? What should be done on-site?
- Ensure that the solution provider’s team members—especially people in key roles—are willing to work on-site for any critical project phase or situation.
- Ask your solution provider to explain how they will ensure effective and efficient communication, continuous alignment, seamless collaboration, and availability of staff (also on short notice).
- Ask your solution provider for experience with and (as needed) recommendations for tooling supporting effective project execution in geographically dispersed environments.
4. Will you help me train my team?
Clients turn to solution providers for specific experience and expertise that is essential to a project and that they do not currently have in their own organisation. Especially in the context of mission-critical solutions, clients typically want to build up inhouse experience and expertise in order to increase their level of autonomy with respect to operating and evolving these solutions. In other words, clients typically want to increase their ability to perform activities by themselves that are initially performed by the solution provider.
Some solution providers perceive this as a threat to revenue while others are willing to actively support clients in acquiring this experience, expertise and taking over support in the long term.
- Find a solution provider with proven experience in successfully building client teams’ capabilities.
- Ensure your solution provider has a well-defined training path and mentoring process for their own team members. This is a good indication of their ability to train and mentor your team members.
- Openly discuss options for training and mentoring your team members with your solution provider. Do they have a desire to find creative solutions with and for you? For example, could your staff work as members of their teams?
5. Can you work with other vendors on the same project?
Many larger and more complexity projects are delivered by members and teams from several solution providers along with the client organisation. In order to achieve project success and meet the project goals, these people will have to work seamlessly alongside and, increasingly, with each other. Traditionally different solution providers have been working in different domains (e.g. UX design vs. software design & implementation vs. programme management) with clearly separated responsibilities. Increasingly, multiple solution providers are expected to work in the same domain (e.g. software design & implementation) with shared responsibilities.
Powerful end-to-end solutions can only be provided if all of these people act as a single team of teams. This requires every organisation and every individual to be willing to work in such an environment and to really collaborate with others independently of their organisational affiliation.
- Find a solution provider with proven experience in delivering successful projects in such a setup involving multiple providers and shared responsibility.
- Ask your solution provider to explain their approach to working in such environments. Ask them to share insights into what works and what does not.
- Understand what other capabilities your solution provider has in addition to the specific capabilities you are looking to source from them.
- Experience and expertise in a full set of coherent services will make it easier for your solution provider to understand the perspective of others and integrate seamlessly into your team of teams.
- Proven experience design & delivery management—including project programme, and operations management—in high-stakes situations is especially valuable in this context.
6. How do you deal with change?
Your CMO wants flexibility and agility so they can adapt quickly to market changes. Your CFO emphasizes efficiency, risk reduction, and cost control. Your CIO or CDO want to be sure that the new e-commerce solution is architecturally sound and built on modern, yet proven technologies—and does not add to the maintenance burden they already have.
How do you meet all of these objectives? How do you satisfy all of these constraints? How do you ensure that your solution provider supports you in this regard?
How do you make sure that a compelling product will be delivered while meeting business objectives, respecting the budget and desired risk profile, complying with technology strategy and accommodate inevitable changes to scope, timelines, priorities and more?
- Find a solution provider who treats change as the rule, not an exception.
- Ask your solution provider to explain their planning, management, design and delivery processes to you.
- Ensure they naturally accommodate change in a streamlined manner: change management needs to be efficient and effective, but a certain level of formality and discipline is required with regard to decision-making and communication.
- Ensure that the overall change management process, in particular the decision-making process, including roles and responsibilities are well defined:
- Who can request and approve changes at which times?
- Who needs to be involved in impact assessment and decision-making?
- What are thresholds and other criteria of escalation to the next level of authority (e.g. product owner, project/product manager, project sponsor or steering committee)?
- Ensure that this is also true for the overall scope management process. Ideally, handle most ‘change’ as part of regular scope management and avoid change management as an exceptional process for the most common types of change.
7. Do you know why?
Truly excellent solutions require a deep understanding of purpose and context. They always take into account the specific situation at hand.
Does your solution provider understand your business, its objectives and its strategy? The challenges, opportunities, and constraints inherent to your market? Your technology landscape and strategy? Your projects stakeholders and their needs?
Does your solution provider know and understand your business and technical KPIs? Do you know all key stakeholders and understand their motivations? Did they you ask questions about our objectives, priorities and strategies?
- Find a solution provider who demonstrates a clear and genuine interest in all of these above.
- Look for a solution provider who truly seeks to partner with you in ensuring that you are solving the right problem and in developing and implementing an outstanding solution.
- Appreciate a solution provider who asks questions in order to explore the unique subtleties of your situation with you — instead of providing you with generic and prefabricated answers of questionable relevance.
- Look for a solution provider who is willing to verify their assumptions and to challenge yours.
- In addition to technical excellence, look for a partner with the right business acumen and management experience. The ability to communicate appropriately with people from different parts and levels of your organisation is a key indicator of expertise in this regard and a critical factor of project success.
Talk is cheap, and so are glossy brochures. Verify your solution provider’s statements with reference calls to other customers.
Ask your solution provider to relate your situation, project and aspirations to prior experience—ask them to compare and contrast. This will show you whether the solution provider is truly willing — and able — to consider and adapt to your specific situation.
Engage your solution provider’s team members in an active conversation rather than listening prepared presentations—a lively conversation is much more demanding and provides you with much better and genuine insight than any presentation could.