When you think of e-commerce, it's only natural to think first and foremost of the shopping cart -- the web page that customers interact with to browse and buy. But in reality, that front-end is just a small part of the entire e-commerce ecosystem. Businesses that focus only on the cart run the risk of costly breakdowns in the supply, service, and marketing aspects of their e-commerce operation.

Too often, entrepreneurs assume that e-commerce operates without any involvement from the front office. Not so! Although the self-service nature of e-commerce can take the sales rep out of finalizing the purchase, even the most automated outfit needs a front office that is informed and ready to act on customer inquiries.

Prospects and clients have questions that self-service cannot address, and visibility into e-commerce customer records makes all the difference in answering them promptly and effectively. Whether dealing with payments, collections, order transit, or marketing, without a closely connected front office, opportunities will quickly slip through the cracks and customer service will become more costly and uncoordinated.

Marketing professionals also need a complete picture of the customer lifecycle inside the e-commerce operation in order to understand the full impact of their efforts. Simple keyword search or banner-click reports only scratch the surface of the effect both online and offline campaigns have on the buying process. When marketing can see not only how many customers arrived and what they searched on, but what they did during their initial visit and all subsequent visits to the e-commerce platform -- including service inquiries as well as browsing and buying -- those campaigns can be tightened and optimized on performance, rather than on guesswork or simple trending.

The back office also needs to be linked to e-commerce as more than just a dumping ground for pick lists and shipping orders. Linking the status of a client's account with the company may be an important consideration as the order flows through the system -- is the customer in arrears on another account and no credit should be extended? Is the customer a VIP or just coming off a bad experience and his order should be treated with kid gloves? That kind of visibility isn't available on a sterile shipping order, and is only possible when e-commerce is seen as a wheel linking together every customer touch-point in the company.

Just as important as linking the various departments of your organization with your e-commerce system is linking them in real-time. "Batch" or "queue" synchronization, common when an e-commerce platform is pieced together with multiple disconnected applications from a gaggle of different vendors, invariably puts your departments at risk of being behind transactions carried out through the Web store. And the Web's always-on, 24/7 nature has driven customer expectations to new heights -- buyers expect that if they pick up the phone to ask a question about an order placed two minutes ago, everybody from the shipping department to the AR rep knows about it.

Real-time data flow in and out of the e-commerce operation also promotes cost-effective supply management. If your e-commerce ordering system is not in harmony with your inventory database and procurement triggers, you run the risk of delayed restocks and promising merchandise not on hand to customers ordering late in the day. Those mistakes typically are solved with costly expedited shipping or other customer make-goods, but are easily avoided by pairing orders and inventory together in an up-to-the-second marriage.

Anybody can sell online these days -- the web shopping cart is commodity technology. The gears of e-commerce are numerous. It's those businesses who treat their e-commerce operations as a complete business, and pay close attention to all the other crucial details, from inventory to accounting to service, who are successful selling online.

Published on: May 1, 2007