To succeed with e-commerce at any scale you need to connect your accounting, ERP, POS or warehouse systems to your e-commerce software. While managing a handful of orders a day manually might be slightly inconvenient, managing 50 or 100 is a big challenge and 1,000+ is impossible.

There are many benefits to integrating your systems that build on each other. The benefits increase as the integration gets more sophisticated.

Reduce duplication of effort: You can’t afford to be updating information manually in multiple places. This leads to errors which could damage your brand and skyrocket staff costs.

Price and inventory accuracy: Customers are checking prices and availability from their smartphones before they leave their house, while in your stores and from your competitor’s stores and shoppers will follow the inventory. Being unable to fulfill orders because you are out of stock bogs down your customer service staff and damages your reputation with customers.

Reduce fulfillment time and expense: Time spent processing orders is time a customer is waiting and questioning their purchase so you need to get your orders shipped as quickly as possible. Amazon has set the standard for quick fulfillment and keeps raising the bar.

Get a 360-degree view of your customers: Cross channel shoppers are likely your most loyal. Your occasional web shopper might be a regular in-store shopper and vice versa.

Put simply, integration will help you leave your non-integrated competitors behind.

So why don’t more mid-size companies integrate?

Most established businesses have legacy systems that do a great job managing critical functions but might not have been designed with e-commerce integration in mind. It can be a huge disruption, expense and risk to re-platform an entire organization just to meet the needs of e-commerce. The good news is that this is seldom required. All systems store data and every system we have encountered, even if they don’t have specific APIs, has some sort of reporting and import functionality that we can adapt to allow systems to talk to each other.

Once you have determined what the goals for your integration process are, keeping these five tips in mind will smooth the process and increase your chance of success.

  • Investigate

Talk to everyone that uses your systems internally. Determine what shortcuts are taken to work around limitations in your current systems and what habits might need to change. These shortcuts can be anything from abbreviations and internal shorthand, to not using some of the features of the software. Ask all the questions. The only dumb question is one that isn’t asked during the planning phase.

After completing an integration for a retailer we discovered sales were not actually run through their POS system but entered manually at the till. It was easier for head office to just send store signs and an email to all staff than to change a bunch of prices. This meant that the website never had sale prices. Another retailer saved time by just marking down the list price rather than setting a sale price and sale start and end dates for their in-store system. While web pricing was accurate, they lost the benefit of being able to highlight sale priced items on the web.

  • Plan

Before you begin, you need to have a good understanding of all of the data that needs to be exchanged between the systems. Look at everything you are doing with your internal systems, how that will affect the data being sent to your e-commerce software and how often that needs to happen. Look ahead to those things that happen infrequently to deal with specific situations”

  1. Inventory and price updates from in-house to e-commerce: Schedule depends on sales velocity and how closely you manage your inventory.
  2. Orders: Real time or scheduled batches?
  3. New products: We recommend manual activation once all web details have been added.
  4. Out of stock: The “what happens at zero?” question. Is it temporary or permanent? Backorders?
  5. Low inventory or end of line clearance.
  6. Shopper data: For a 360-degree view of your customers
  • Document

The system will outlast the staff that plan it so don’t rely on memory for what decisions or accommodations were made. Make sure everything is documented and everyone knows where it is documented. The documentation will evolve during development and over time as you learn more about the systems and users ask questions. This investment is critical to the long term success of your project.

  • Prepare your data

Most accounting systems are expert systems designed to be used by insiders. People use abbreviations and office shorthand codes that “everyone” knows. The use of the systems likely evolves over time as well so we find data gaps and legacy data that has not been updated. You should expect some data cleanup before the integration and if needed retraining staff should start immediately to break old habits.

  • Test

Test all the processes, even the ones you don’t plan on using often. This also needs to become a habit with any changes you are considering after the site is launched. If you change how something works and it just inconveniences internal users that is one thing, but if it impacts your e-commerce site it will be seen by thousands of visitors a day who will leave and shop elsewhere. Your e-commerce vendor should provide you with a staging platform that is identical to your live platform that you can experiment with.

Once your site is launched, keep your vendors and consultants informed about upcoming changes and needs. Planning on implementing an upgrade to your accounting platform? Check your documentation and talk to your e-commerce vendor in advance!

You can often plan a phased approach starting with inventory/price updates, followed by orders and work your way up to full integration. Your plan can be your roadmap and you wouldn’t take a trip without a map would you?

This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Direct Marketing.

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