The Truth About E-Commerce Applications
Today's e-commerce universe is made up of hundreds of applications, in theory, all of which were created to solve a problem for the online seller. Unfortunately, many apps fail to get to the core of the issues they're trying to solve, and by floating aimlessly, they actually create other challenges. Worse still, apps that do legitimately solve a problem are often too siloed to be useful to merchants whose workflows require them to move through systems (sales, inventory, shipping, accounting) with every order. Balance is the key when going deeper down on the problem side and then wider on the solutions side — and then back again. App developers who truly get that concept do both: solve problems and repair systemic inefficiencies. Here are a few easy ways to identify what works and what's wasteful before adding apps to your online business.
Good Apps Solve a Core Problem. Bad Apps Try to Do Too Much.
For example, an automation software that's made specifically to sync the accounting and bookkeeping process solves a core problem. Sure, it may also do additional things like light up great analytics that help merchants gain financial insights, but that's not its core purpose. If it was to claim business intelligence as a feature, it would have to be much better at just analytics. In fact, it would have to solve an entirely different problem. Knowing it's core value is important for any application, and so is resisting the temptation to unnecessarily expand beyond the core and into bells and whistles that the user doesn't need.
Bad Apps Think They're the Center of the Universe. Good Apps Know Their Context.
In e-commerce, the shopping cart or marketplace starts off as the center of a business until additional sales channels are added. Once a retailer becomes multichannel, its needs change and often the operational center shifts to either inventory or shipping. The situation becomes tricky for sellers who deal with several different roles, such as an operations manager, a warehouse or shipping team, accounting, marketing, and so on.
Naturally, each of these areas will grow and use specialized applications (e.g., shipping tools, inventory or warehouse management systems, email marketing software, etc.) which will eventually create chaos behind the scenes. This is perfectly fine, of course, if each of those specialized applications recognizes that it's a piece of the puzzle, not the entire thing. Unfortunately, the rise of app stores puts the onus on the user to understand if or how their separate applications work together. Granted, some companies get comfortable with multiple operational centers, but those that don't look for something to bring it all together, like a costly and difficult-to-operate ERP system.
Apps that lack perspective and try to be the center of the universe also tend to guide the wrong types of behaviors. Assuming they can command more of your attention than they really should, they end up annoying with notifications galore and popping up all the time when, in reality, the user would be happy if they just continued to do their thing quietly in the background. Applications that can step away and recognize where they fit in a user's universe are infinitely better because they recognize the scope of their own usefulness and don't waste anybody's time.
Good Apps Play Effectively With Others. Bad Apps Exist in Isolation.
Nobody likes an app that doesn't partner with the others that are involved in a process, or manage a complementary function. Sure, their marketing materials will claim they "integrate with everything," but buyers should take a close look at the actual features those integrations enable.
When an app connects to another system but doesn't facilitate enough functionality, that's a faux integration. At the very least, apps that center around the same business functions should work seamlessly together. For example, payroll is executed in a payroll system that needs to connect to an accounting system. If that payroll system doesn't integrate and push data with enough detail to reconcile, it's useless. And if it's not pushing all the information with the click of a button and at a granular level that can be attributed to different parts of your general ledger, it's useless.
What does full integration look like? I like the way Google now works between the different G Suite apps. It took Google a long time to centralize it all, but it's very effective. So, Google Drive plus Google Docs plus sharing in Gmail — all of that works well together because it's all related and it operates in the same sphere of functionality.
Back in the day, Microsoft didn't have proper integration between Word, Excel, PowerPoint and others until it combined the systems into Microsoft Office. It even took a few iterations before it started really working well together. Before, you had to buy everything separate and jerry-rig any integrations by brute force. But after combining everything into Office, Microsoft allows and even encourages these apps to work together with ease.
A good integration recognizes that it gains more power and precision by working with other apps, not in isolation. When considering apps for your business, make sure they each carry their own weight, but are built to allow and encourage other apps to do their best work.
Good Apps Aspire to Be Great. Bad Apps Can't Be Bothered to Think Big.
Early electronic medical records had amazing adoption rates at the executive level but horrible adoption rates at the doctor level. Why? Because developers didn't grasp the full scope of their functionality. The goal wasn't just to make notes that could be saved; the goal was to acquire test data, compare results, seamlessly communicate with patients, pharmacies and labs — the list goes on. Without realizing its greater good, these systems were built into stationary workstations which would keep doctors away from their patients. Without going into endless detail, these systems are now built to be available anywhere and anytime, in any format, so a doctor can take notes and sync them automatically while still devoting necessary care and attention to the patient. This drastically improved the doctor's experience as well as the patient's. And because the tool is actually used, it even works for the researchers who depend upon blind data to inform their projects.
What does that have to do with e-commerce apps? Now that the retail industry has some established norms and online sellers are realizing the vast opportunities available to them, businesses can and should plan ahead for success and anticipate the need to scale. Likewise, good e-commerce apps that are built to grow with their SMB customers as they emerge into the world of enterprise businesses stand a much better chance at being great. Apps with add-on feature sets for higher volume, optional cost efficiencies, better financial insights and streamlined permissions-based workflows will earn the trust and loyalty of their customers as their businesses grow. Everybody wins, including the free-market economy into which e-commerce feeds.
So there you have it, your simple guide for finding apps that are worth a damn for your e-commerce business. Be warned, the research might be tough. You'll have to dig through online reviews, talk to to fellow sellers, and get down to brass tacks with your friendly neighborhood SaaS app salesperson. However, if you take the time to find the right tech stack for your particular sales model, products and customers, you'll avoid all-too-common frustration and failure. Instead, you'll build a business that tells a tale of opportunity and adventure.
Rob McGrorty is the head of product at Webgility, the foundation of the virtual ERP for e-commerce.