Ecommerce expert vs agency: Where should you turn for success?

Beyond the challenges of product management and fulfillment, merchants are faced with unprecedented opportunities for reaching new shoppers and re-selling to existing customers. Social media, multiple selling channels, and increasing flexibility in online pay-per-click advertising all contribute to a powerful, but immensely convoluted landscape.

Emerging merchants are, understandably, often overwhelmed. Many are frustrated by less than optimal results and missed opportunities.

Most mid-market merchants experience disappointing returns for one or more of the following reasons:

  • Lack of expertise. It is unusual for most merchants outside of the top 1,000 to have both deep and broad in-house capabilities to both functionally and creatively address the many e-commerce disciplines required. Even the most senior ecommerce executive will confess they “don’t know everything.” Merchants relatively new to online commerce also find it difficult — almost impossible — to assess the kinds of expertise and experience needed in order to even hire the right in-house team.

  • Absence of analytics. Great e-commerce is driven by numbers. Ecommerce provides merchants with information on customer behaviors far beyond the level of data available in a traditional brick-and-mortar environment. Yet, the intelligent analysis of the data is many times outside the native expertise of most merchants. In fact, the biggest missed opportunity for online sellers is the strategic use of data to drive everything from website design to shipping policies.

  • Failure to be a customer. Merchants cannot assume that online customers are anything like them, or like their brick-and-mortar shoppers. It is a difficult exercise, but using a combination of metrics, research, and creative experience, successful merchants carefully identify their best online customers and construct processes to maximize opportunities with online consumers.

  • No ecommerce business plan. Building, managing and marketing an online shop is not merely an extension of a merchant’s traditional retailing or wholesaling business. Selling online should be considered a new business. Today’s e-commerce has moved far beyond being simply another marketing channel. To succeed, merchants need to create one or two-year business plans complete with budgets, goals, KPIs and operational requirements. With e-commerce’s rapid growth, serious businesses need to begin with proper planning.

With so much at stake, merchants have to assess whether and when they need outside help. The decision to call in one or more specific experts or turn to an agency begins with introspection.

Begin with an assessment

Before we get to the question of agency or expert, merchants should outline their goals and objectives for what they want to accomplish online. This is not a complete business plan, but it does serve as the high-level strategic goals.

Next, do a candid assessment of internal resources. Do you have the in-house expertise to create and execute a detailed plan for success? Are you willing to trust and support those experts on your team who have the experience to create a productive online effort?

Once you have this basic assessment, you can then begin determining what external resources you need.

Start with an expert plan

Before you do anything to move further in ecommerce, you should, by your assessment, know the extent of any weaknesses in your organization. Some merchants have great business analysis capabilities but lack online marketing experience. Others have managers who are very adept at customer acquisition but are less skilled at the logistical aspects of distribution and fulfillment. Some merchants are enjoying success with an online store, but need assistance planning for multiple channel selling (e.g. Amazon, eBay).

The construction of a detailed plan is usually outside the capabilities of a single, expert individual. Yes, there are unique individuals who have the depth of personal experience to build truly comprehensive, actionable business plans. But, even in those cases, there are unseen limitations simply due to the fact that the complexities of today’s ecommerce landscape preclude the possibility of a single expert having the broad knowledge needed.

When an agency is ideal

Regardless of how much help you may need to construct an actionable plan, the decision to employ an expert or an agency should boil down to experience. More specifically, experience in your type of ecommerce. Direct-to-consumer (D2C) is vastly different from business-to-business (B2B); drop shipping is different than selling from inventory; hard goods have different needs than intangible services.

Since a proper business plan must address so many different areas of expertise, an agency is, by nature, the best resource for this first, most important step toward online success. True ecommerce agencies call upon a team of experts — both internally and externally — to bring together vetted, creative ideas. Agencies, as true representatives of the merchant, can more expertly assess new platforms and technologies than most merchants.

A proper business plan should map out tactical steps for reaching your objectives for the next 12-24 months. It should include costs, timelines, and possible resources. An ideal business plan should leverage a much of your resources as possible, including recommendations for staff hires or realignments.

And while agencies are also keen on capturing some of the after-work from the final business plan, they also realize that any future work for the client will be measured against the very KPIs the agency conceived and included in any plan. Singular experts or agencies focused on only select aspects of ecommerce are not necessarily bound to the eventual results of a plan — at least not to the extent of a full agency.

For merchants who want a vested partner — one whose own prospects for income are tied to a merchant’s success — an agency can be a very viable avenue. To be sure, the use of an agency for not only the planning process but also for any tasks created by the plan requires a great degree of trust by the merchant. But, with the right agency partner, the possibility of success can be improved.

When an expert is ideal

Some mid-market merchants are fortunate enough to have in-house leadership that has the experience, drive, and creativity to manage all aspects of a powerful online selling effort. While any such manager would be the first to admit they don’t have all the answers, the more successful ones do have an intimate understanding of the dynamics of online commerce and how it differentiates from offline commerce. Their backgrounds are steeped in ecommerce and they know how to bring together experts and niche agencies in a cooperative, synergistic manner.

In these cases, the use of experts — whether individual or agencies — can be tremendously valuable. The merchant can create a “mastermind” assemblage, of sorts, leveraging the deep expertise from a variety of part-time professionals. “Part-time” in the sense that they are not full-time employees of the merchant.

Boils down to leadership

As discussed, the decision to use experts or agencies really depends on the caliber of the merchant’s in-house e-commerce leadership. Ecommerce success is not as much a procedural matter as it is a creative effort. Creativity in ecommerce is, unfortunately, the most difficult asset to measure. Yet, the more creativity — based on ecommerce experience — a merchant possesses, the more a merchant can rely on specific niche experts.

If merchants have little or no ecommerce experience, they are well advised to avoid building a team of independent experts and, instead, vet and identify a full, 360-degree ecommerce agency who can serve the merchant independent of the singular, self-purpose goals and objectives of individual experts.

In-house managers often possess greater familiarity and passion for the company’s brand and products. While adroit agencies are capable of understanding and engaging a merchant’s brand value, the ultimate protection of the brand proposition rests with the merchant. The responsibility for preserving and protecting a brand can never be relegated to an agency.

However, a skilled agency can help a merchant better define, communicate and grow the brand’s value through online commerce.

Bret Williams
Bret Williams is Co-Founder and Managing Partner of novusweb llc, an Austin-based ecommerce agency focused on serving SMB merchants. Mr. Williams has written several published books on ecommerce and is a frequent speaker and instructor on ecommerce.
Showing 3 comments
  • Hanna

    Great article!

  • V Beckner

    It is good to remember that none of what your experts tell you about timelines is set into stone. So, to be safe, add 2 times to the timeline when determining if you can afford to go with the plan proposed by your agency or outside collaborator.

  • Bret Williams

    V Becker,
    You’re correct that it’s not uncommon for timelines to extend further than anticipated. It’s an all-too-often occurrence. However, from over 20 years of experience, I can say that such delays can often be blamed on both parties.
    Experts are sometimes likely to underestimate time and costs in order to “get the business.” It’s not unique to our industry, either. How many times has a mechanic told you it would be a quick fix, only to take much longer and for greater cost?
    Merchants are also responsible in many cases. Not due to any nefarious reasons, but simply because building an online store — especially for newcomers to e-commerce — involves so many components, many merchants have not yet discovered exactly how they want to address products, shipping, logistics, payments, marketing, etc.
    One point I hope was clear in this article was that taking the time to properly plan for e-commerce — and that means doing a deep dive into all aspects — will certainly improve everyone’s ability to properly scope and estimate any work to be done. Neither party should assume anything.
    Beyond planning, a merchant should demand that any experts or agencies provide detailed plans (which merchants may need to pay for) on how they will solve the merchant’s needs. Such mutual discovery and planning can ultimately save lots of money down the road and deliver a much more satisfactory experience for both.

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