Most clients have a number of similarities: market knowledge, customer understanding, and so on. Even when you work with large, complex clients these similarities tend to hold true. It can therefore be all too easy for an agency to slip into a mode of feeling they’ve seen it all before, delivering a one-size-fits-all approach to client services which can in turn result in work that is just OK. Nothing special. Meh.

One area where I’ve seen this happen particularly often is with retail eCommerce clients. After all, they’re all just selling stuff online, so it’s a case of sorting the website, getting the SEO in order, and away you go – isn’t it? In my experience, retail eCommerce businesses have wildly different ways of organising and operating, and failing to understand this and work with the quirks of each client leads to poorer quality work and a breakdown of client trust. 

With all this in mind, here are some tips on how to work with these complex organisations to deliver a positive impact and demonstrate agency value.

Get your data straight

Onboarding a client should never be rushed, and when you’re dealing with large clients that have multiple teams working on the same basic goals, it’s vital that you understand their internal processes.

It can be very easy to assume that teams are organised in a particular way, or that certain responsibilities must fall under the remit of one team and not another. For instance, what you might assume to be marketing’s remit could actually fall under eCommerce. Or sales. Or IT. Assumptions can lead to miscommunication, ruffled feathers, and difficult relationships from the off. So don’t make them. 

Instead, spend time understanding and mapping out the topography of the organisation you’re working with. Establish which teams handle what tasks, who reports into who, and how your dealings with specific teams will impact others. Failure here can lead you looking naive at best, or incompetent at worst.

Get to know the people

Understanding the people client-side is crucial, whether there are two employees or 200. The problem with large retail eCommerce clients is that they can be complex, with different departments controlling things like taxonomy, planning, content, product, and so on. This links back to understanding the lay of the land, but you have to go further than that. 

Each team will have their own targets, priorities, needs, and blockers. Getting to know the individuals in different departments will help you get a handle on the complicated interdependencies within the business, and give much needed clarity on how to build an effective plan. 

The immediate team you work with is the place to start. Take the time to understand what they do, what they are interested in, what they are responsible for, and what frustrations and struggles they face. It’s really important that this isn’t siloed to client services. Connections and relationship building should be part of everybody’s tasks, taking place in a natural way. A weekly visit or video call is vital to maintaining a happy and healthy relationship. 

From there, get to work on understanding the line management from the primary team. Who does the team lead report into? What are their objectives and needs? Often, support from decision-makers further up the chain of command is vital to getting projects running efficiently. They can also present great opportunities for growing the client. Booking in a monthly coffee or lunch meeting can help develop these relationships.

But don’t just think ‘up’. It’s also important to consider other, additional teams that support or feed into the work you’re doing. When running an SEO project, for example, there will be content teams, planners, product and development teams. Failing to build and maintain relationships here can make for an uphill struggle, because these people will be working on things that could slow down or even derail your own project.  

If all this sounds like a waste of time, something that will stop you from just ‘getting things done’, then consider this paraphrasing of Bob Burg: people work with people they know, like, and trust. Putting the effort in here will make the overall progress of your project easier. It will also mean that when there are any potentially contentious issues or proposals, people will be much more open and receptive to suggestions and change.

Get clarity from the client

This builds on the previous points, but I can’t stress enough the importance of getting direct, precise input from client stakeholders. Whether you’re just beginning the relationship or coming up to a retainer renewal, it’s essential that stakeholders have their input. 

Stakeholders can sometimes be very involved day-to-day (those within the team you’re working with) or they can be quite removed, checking in monthly, quarterly, or at key milestones (those in different teams or higher up in the business). They all need the opportunity to review, reflect, give feedback and voice their priorities or concerns. 

At the earliest possible stage, I like to arrange a clarity session with stakeholders from across the organisation. With a new client, you get access to vital information to help ensure an effective working relationship from the get-go; with an existing client, you can refresh and re-energise the relationship and make sure everyone is working towards the same objectives.

Don’t go into these meetings blind, unprepared, or without a clear list of actions and desired outputs. Have an agenda and make sure this is circulated to all stakeholders well ahead of schedule. And if there are problems in the business or poor-performing areas, don’t press these issues too much. These should be raised, but then allow the stakeholders to discuss and feed in. Provide your view when required, but remember you might be operating on an incomplete picture; there’s no need to give the client a grand plan there and then. 

This is especially important for eCommerce clients, given the ever-changing nature of a retail site with constant updates such as category changes, stock and seasonal changes, events and sales. The natural flux within these organisations can lead to siloed information, and these sessions are the natural forum to get a handle on the shifting priorities. 

Again, having built relationships across the organisation will make these sessions richer and more useful. Having a friend in analytics, or planning, for example, can help you prepare better.

Understand the customers

Every client needs to understand their customers. After all, if you don’t know your customers and their needs, how can you deliver them the right products and services in the right way? But for retail eCommerce clients this is especially crucial. In this sector, the website is the destination you want to drive all your customers to, so you absolutely have to have an in-depth understanding of the audience, their drivers, and how the client offering and website match up with the users. 

Most companies will have an idea of their users, but for many this data is old and for most this is unlikely to be used for general changes. Sometimes, the user understanding will be based on unverified personas, built on intuition. This isn’t always a bad thing, and is a necessary stage in customer understanding, but the truth of these personas and their needs can be tested with a retail eCommerce client in a far simpler way than with many other businesses. 

When we ask who uses the site, this speaks to formal personas, but also buyer funnel and intent. You can map personas, funnel, and intent onto the website and other activity, and then see from the performance data if what you’re providing on content pages, or via the cart and checkout experience, is helping facilitate customer actions and driving them to purchase. 

This differs from site to site as well as categories and subcategories within a single site. The way that a specialist retailer structures their site and builds their content will be different from a larger generalist. Likewise, the types of content that people shopping for clothes want will differ from the preferences of tech shoppers. 

Without a clear understanding of the different levels of need for different customers, and how the site is supporting them, any planning is subject to failure.

Understand your competitors

In an ever-shrinking marketplace there has never been more opportunity – or more risk. That’s why knowing your competitors is so important. We have seen market share drop dramatically for a number of big players, while other behemoths have never slowed in growth. It’s vital to always keep a close eye on competitors, not just traditional but also newcomers to the market.

When it comes to competitors you need to ask the following two questions:

–    What do they do which is different to you and how is that performing?

–    What do they do which is the same as you and how is that performing?

The worst thing an established brand can do is rely on their name and market share, because today, brand advocacy is at an all-time low. New, disruptive brands are hungry and know how to reach and speak to the audience, so they have an uncanny ability to gain market share at speed. 

When you couple the young start-ups and innovators to dominant sites such as Amazon and eBay, which continue to swallow up share from the other end of the spectrum, things can look bleak. However, a smart agency will see this as an opportunity for the brand, and a way to galvanise forces within the organisation.