Ecommerce equals automated & scalable? Myth


Beware scalability myths. Ecommerce orders can flow in faster than they flow out. Build a buffer that anticipates messy human customers. Click To Tweet

Ecommerce is an idea we associate with words like ‘automated’ and ‘scalable’. Customers order using your website 24/7. When the order automatically flows in to your business and shipping software, the system seems without limit.

Technology like online ordering promises to help us surpass limits on our capacity for growth, and we want to believe this promise. But there’s a paradox about human nature. It makes for a limit to growth that frustrates us. It’s also a gift if you can only recognize it…

Hi, I’m Patrick Pitman and I want to talk about the myth that online ordering makes possible automatic growth.

In the 2000’s, catalog companies jumped on the ecommerce wagon. I remember an educational supply company thrilled at how we set records for ‘back to school’ orders once customers could do it online. Before, orders had arrived in paper envelopes, or Moms phoned in and read from the paper catalog of microscopes and math books. Suddenly new orders felt automatic.

But what may seem a scalable inflow of customers is never disconnected from the limits of human capacity – your customer’s capacity to behave, well, like a human, and your team’s capacity to respond. Each customer represents a potential ask of your attention!

Self-service tools, even chat bots or AI, cannot delight the customer who’s fundamentally stuck. Each order carries the potential extra cost of your problem-solving attention.  It’s like a mounting liability.

This brings us to the paradox I mentioned earlier: Humans want things to happen automatically. We love the idea of efficiency and feelings of friction-less flow.

But humans are conflicted and inefficient. We change our minds. We lose our minds! We set our hearts on something, and then it shifts. We frighten easily.

So all that automation, even robots in the warehouse, cannot change this part of the system: the messy human customer.

Some have forgotten this as the inflow of orders gets easier, giving the impression that doing business online is easily scalable.

The flow in may feel automatic, but the flow out is anything but. If you’re focused on speeding up the flow in, (marketing) and expect the flow out, (fulfillment and the customer experience) — if you expect that to behave similarly, beware. This imbalance will eventually show up and wreck your reputation among customers.

So if that’s the paradox and the problem, then here’s the gift it brings:

You can delight your customer when they show up, inevitably, as a messy human.

But you’ll need to expect the mess, and remain skeptical of technology’s promise of frictionless flow. Then you’ll build in what may feel like an inefficient buffer to your pricing, to your forecasted delivery. You’ll train your team to anticipate it, to embrace rather than resist it.

Then, when your customer shows up just as they are, you won’t be dismayed at the inefficiency. You’ll be ready.

You’ll be ready to delight a customer who these days feels blamed for the inevitable inefficiency of getting stuck, or feels dismay at a self-service system that disappoints.

Instead, your team will clean up the mess, make a remarkable impression, and maybe, maybe earn a customer for life.

Updated: January 12, 2021
Published: November 12, 2018

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