ECommerce Replatforming: Part 3 – Platform Selection (Ditch that RFP!)

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Platform Selection (Ditch that RFP!)

In our previous articles on ecommerce replatforming we’ve looked at knowing when it’s time to replatform and then how to prepare for a platform selection process. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the selection process itself. We’ll explore the best way to approach the process and how to get to the right decision.

To RFP or Not to RFP:

Often, many companies will begin their selection process by completing an RFP (Request for Proposal) document that is then sent to the potential vendors on their short list. The intent of this document is to outline all of the business requirements for the project and to establish parameters that a vendor must meet in order to win the bid. Typically, these comprehensive documents can take weeks to develop and can resemble a small book when they’re completed.

In our opinion, it’s time to move on from the RFP. They’re difficult to create, long, boring, and hard to comprehend. Many times, key elements of the project get lost within the enormity of the document.

Instead, describe your project visually.

You know the saying; a picture is worth a thousand words. It’s also easier for people to comprehend. So, instead of an RFP, create a set of annotated wireframes that outlines your vision for the website. Visually represent how your site template pages should be constructed and use text callouts to highlight key features and use cases. Then take these wireframes and attach a short overview letter describing the project, expected timelines, budget expectations and any “must-haves” to the vendors on your short list.

It’s a more user-centered approach that avoids confusion and should enable your vendors to deliver a more accurate proposal.

The Assessment Phase: 

Now that you’ve sent your introductory note and wireframes to your shortlist of vendors, the assessment phase begins. Depending on the size of the project, the number of vendors you’re evaluating, and the speed at which your organization can manage the process, this can take anywhere from 4 – 12 weeks. Typically, for mid-sized companies, you should expect about 6 weeks from start to contract signed.

So, what should you focus on to determine the best fit? There are a number of considerations that can help you dig below the surface and see past the sales pitch. They include:

  • Live Demos – it’s important that you can see the platform in action. Screenshots can suffice for the initial features overview, however, you’ll want to experience the platform in action. A proof of concept. Configuring products, modifying data, setting up promotions, and updating page elements are good places to start. Establish a list of key capabilities important to your business and use this opportunity to ascertain how easy, or difficult, it would be to implement these on the new platform. In addition, be sure to confirm that the features you’re seeing are included in the base version of the platform and not customizations available at an extra cost.
  • Solve a Problem – if you’re considering a replatform, then there’s a good chance you want your new platform to solve a problem that your current ecommerce solution can’t do. If so, ask the vendor to demonstrate how they would solve that problem. What’s their approach? How would they design the user experience? What kind of effort is required? The answers to these questions will provide valuable insights into your potential future working relationship.
  • Meet the Team – great platforms can ultimately disappoint if you don’t have the right implementation team. You need to understand, and feel comfortable, with the team working on your account. Do they have strong project management, how much experience do they have, and how well do they understand the complexities of your internal business operations? To help ensure the best possible outcome, ask the vendor to name your team upfront and provide the amount of experience they have working on similar implementations so you can evaluate and assess these individuals prior to entering a working relationship.
  • Culture Fit – this is sometimes an overlooked but extremely critical aspect when considering any long-term partnership. Some cultural clues are evident based on the number of clients a vendor supports or whether or not they are a publicly-traded company. Other clues are less obvious but can be very telling. Who did they send for your site visit? Did they take the time to inquire and learn about the intricacies of your business? How responsive were they to your requests? How well do they retain their employees? Just like hiring a new employee, establishing a good cultural fit can be indicative of a strong, long-term, partnership.
  • Crisis Management – how will the vendor respond when things go wrong? No one ever likes to admit in a sales pitch that things can go wrong. But they do, and they will. That’s to be expected in the rapidly evolving world of ecommerce. However, you should know upfront if you are going to have to negotiate between several partner help desks (the platform, your cloud hosting provider, and your systems integrator) to find the root cause of your problem. In that scenario, who will play the lead and coordinate to ensure the best solution in the least amount of time? Or will you work with a single-point-of-contact by utilizing a full-service ecommerce provider? In either case, will they perform a root cause analysis and provide detailed instructions as to how they will prevent the situation from occurring again? And lastly, what service-level agreements (SLA’s), will they put into their contract to provide assurances, and potential remuneration, should problems arise?
  • References – two recommendations here. The first relates to vendor-supplied references. As they’ve already been pre-screened to say positive things about the vendor, you need to focus on asking questions that relate more to their experience using the platform than general satisfaction inquiries. Try to ascertain the process involved in onboarding products or adding new categories. Explore the process of updating web pages and scheduling promotions. Focus on aspects pertinent to your business that you may want to better ascertain (e.g.: creating product collections). The second recommendation is to find back-channel references. Explore their client list, find a similar company to yours (e.g.: B2B parts supplier or DTC luxury goods retailer), and then use LinkedIn to find personal connections. There should be at least several opportunities that present themselves, and while not everyone will take your call, some will.

While evaluating platform features & capabilities are an important part of any selection process, we would argue they are not the primary selection criteria. That’s because features & capabilities evolve over time. At any given time, some other platform may offer a certain capability that your platform doesn’t. But then, roles reverse. It’s only if your platform does not maintain parity over the long-run that you should consider it may be time for a change. In the ever-changing world of ecommerce, having a long-term partner who understands your business, can provide platform flexibility, and is responsive to your business needs is truly what’s most important.

In Part 4 of our series on ecommerce replatforming, we’ll explore the implementation process and the transition to a long-term working relationship with your new partner.