Content: Some online retailers list their products without worrying about their product descriptions. This can not only lead to bad user experience (20% of purchase failures are potentially a result of missing or unclear product information, a study said) but also have a negative impact on the product’s ability to be found in search engines, since search engines reward unique and rich content. I think good product descriptions should come from both customer personas and the product value.
As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Highly Successful E-Commerce Business”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Bony.
Laura is the Head of Sales North America at OnCrawl, an awarded software. She is in charge of the management of the Canadian office and the growth of the tool in North America. She has many years of experience working with ecommerce websites in order to increase their online visibility and revenues.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Thank you very much for having me! I’ve been working at OnCrawl for 4 years. I actually opened OnCrawl’s office in Montreal in 2017. Before OnCrawl, I was doing international consulting for companies willing to grow their business (including online) in North America. But it’s at OnCrawl that my focus really shifted to ecommerce and I’m now working with +200 ecommerce companies across the US and Canada.
Besides my day job, I’m a yoga teacher and globetrotter. I was born in France, raised between Europe and the Carribean, and I briefly lived in China before immigrating to Canada.
These personal and professional experiences have helped me develop empathy and resilience. These are values I believe are essential in a corporate setting. So when OnCrawl offered me to start their business in North America, it sounded like the perfect fit.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
At the very beginning, OnCrawl was built to meet the needs of the biggest ecommerce company in France, CDiscount. Our client was looking for a strong and a cost-efficient crawler to discover their entire website (+100 millions pages). They also needed a lot of advanced metrics, such as near duplicate content detection, page rank, link equity, etc. François Goube, our CEO, was an pioneer in France and he partnered with Tanguy Moal, our CTO, one of the strongest engineers in Europe, to create OnCrawl. CDiscount is still one of our most loyal clients today, and ever since they first gave us a chance back in 2013, we have never stopped growing.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I can’t speak on behalf of François and Tanguy about their entrepreneurship journey, but I can share my personal experience with launching our activities in North America from scratch.
When I first started, we had near to zero business in North America. We didn’t have our own office. We didn’t have a local team… So I faced a lot of difficulties, like any new business.
I quickly managed to win deals with companies that I’m still working with today (Forbes, Vistaprint, Major League Baseball). But my biggest challenge was management. I thought I was good with people because I’m pretty successful at building relationships, which is 90% of my job as a Head of Sales. However, managing a team is obviously a totally different thing.
I never considered giving up. I grew up instead. I’ve learned to continually ask myself what I should do differently to make sure my team is successful:
1- Thinking in terms of goals (short and long terms; individually and collectively), and making them clear enough so your team will do what they have to do to reach them
2- Having first-class onboarding, to make sure people can deliver quick and well
3- Identifying your own patterns and biases to take objective decisions, be more business-oriented than ego-oriented
Nothing drives me more than seeing people thriving at work. It’s a win-win-win deal, for my team, our customers and our business.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
After 4 years of activity, we do more than 30% of our business in North America, with a team of 6 people.
We’re pretty proud of what we’ve achieved so far. but it’s during times of crisis that we see — for better or for worse — if we’re truly successful: we’ll be recording growth again this year, despite the circumstances, without letting go of anyone and while keeping our churn rate under 10%.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I like to share the story of my very first client demo, only two weeks after I started at OnCrawl. I did my onboarding at OnCrawl’s headquarters in France before coming back to Montreal to start doing the job I was hired for. One of my first client meetings was with a good-sized American company which was already nerve-wracking in itself. On top of that, back in the day, I knew very little about, while my target audience was exactly experts. My sales pitch wasn’t quite ready either and my English was kind of shaky. I didn’t give up however. I showed up to the meeting, did my pitch and tried to respond to the company’s concerns the best I could. And this company is still one of my clients today!
The lesson I learned from that experience is that you have to be bold sometimes. No one can blame you for trying.
I think the reason I enjoy working with OnCrawl so much is because I have the opportunity to try, learn from my mistakes and gain self-confidence. I continued to be bold and that’s how I won my best deals so far.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
At OnCrawl, we always say that we’re the ‘good guys’ in the sphere. I believe that very strongly. We’re not the size of Shopify or even some of our main competitors, but we have the same kind of client portfolio as these much bigger and louder companies.
On our market, people recognize us as a friendly company and that’s usually why they want to work with us or for us. Thanks to this core value, we’ve been able to hire some topnotch profiles to make OnCrawl the best software on the global market, with half as many collaborators as some of our competitors.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I’ve been there, unfortunately. During my recovery, I chose yoga and meditation as tools for getting better and stronger. My recovery process took about 2 years and here are some immediate tips that, to me, would prevent anyone from falling into burnout or getting over it if it’s too late:
- Breathing: It sounds very yogi but breathing is not only vital, but it also controls our nervous system. No matter the exercise that works for you (you’ll find plenty of different methods on YouTube), breathing is always helping cooling down and stepping back, no matter the situation.
- Do not give too much weight to your thoughts and emotions. They are only thoughts and emotions. They don’t have the power to predict what will happen to you tomorrow
- Leave work at work, as much as possible. It’s not always an option, of course, but if you’re working late every single night and weekend, maybe taking a time management course would be a good idea.
- Say “no” when you have too much on your plate, or ask for more reasonable deadlines. I know it’s hard for many people but when you’re doing a good job and if you know what your priorities are, your boss is able to take “no” as an answer sometimes.
- If you’re not happy where you are, for too long, and there’s nothing you could do about it maybe it’s just time to just look for another job.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are many that come to mind. Some of them are clients, prospects even, team mates… But the one person I’m thinking about the most is an ex-coworker. Our relationship had some difficult beginnings because we had opposite personalities, a totally different background, different jobs and objectives. It was very difficult for us to collaborate, but when we had to deal with customers together, everything went very well and we actually made a highly successful duo. After a few months she moved to a different team and we barely communicated for some time. We later decided to talk, to tell each other what had gone wrong and why. No one likes to get negative feedback so it wasn’t an easy process. However, we decided to do something with it and questioned ourselves respectively.
Honestly, I’ve never progressed so much in my career, I later received compliments from that person, and then from my manager for the progress I’ve made.
The lesson here is that maybe positive feedback is easier to get but if we decide to do something with negative feedback, rather than ruminating, one can be surprised.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that eCommerce businesses are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?
When the lockdown started, the most common action taken by ecommerce stores were discounts and free shipping (the “STAYINGHOME” discount code worked pretty much everywhere at that point). More specifically, here are some creative ideas we could have noticed:
- Giving back to local communities and charity: I saw many websites, especially small ones, that decided to give back a decent amount of their profit to charity, local communities and health workers. For example, on peace-collective.com, for each mask bought, one complimentary mask was sent to health workers in Canada. You could even contact the customer service of the site to report a shortage of masks in a particular hospital or grocery store in your area.
- Diversifying offer: Whether because of supply difficulties, to meet demand, or to try new sales avenues, many websites have diversified their offer, especially with more hygiene products, medical supplies, DIY products, sport equipment… Some major brands have also joined forces to avoid dependency on sites (such as Amazon), like Shopify and Walmart.
- Exploring niches: We’ve seen the emergence of niches in recent years, and I think that it accelerated with the pandemic because it’s a good way to differentiate from the competition. The sleep industry was one of the first one to understand that (I’m thinking about Saatva, Casper…) but I have seen more astonishing products, such as livelarq.com who offers self-cleaning water bottles (convenient during a pandemic).
- New delivery models: Logistics and delivery delays were a nightmare of ecommerce stores during lockdown. Post Canada probably took down a lot of small businesses because of their lack of preparation. But, talking about small businesses, some have come together to manage their sales process from A to Z, from a brand new online store right through to delivery. I’m thinking about initiatives like panierquebecois.ca which brings producers together to deliver at home while farmers’ markets are closed; I can also cite miamafrica.com which delivers African restaurants’ dishes to help them survive the pandemic.
Amazon, and even Walmart are going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
I think that China’s D2C companies have two competitive advantages over the rest of the world:
- They’re performing very well on their home market as well as on the global market. When you take Walmart for example, they partnered with Shopify to compete directly with Amazon, on the North American market specifically. In my opinion, Western ecommerce companies focus on their home market and their immediate competitors, without looking enough at the threat that comes from afar.
- They’re innovating very quickly. And I think the only way for Western ecommerce businesses to catch up is to look for innovation from where it comes from: opening R&D subsidiaries in China, hiring highly qualified people from Asian and African markets.
That being said, success factors for Western businesses can actually come from China itself, or wherever the technology and expertise is available. For instance, Eastern Europe is known for being ahead regarding online security, which is a big challenge for online stores. I’m especially thinking about Estonia, where schools teach online best practices (and where Internet access is an inalienable social right).
Africa will soon be ahead regarding online installment and has already developed some of the most disruptive technologies in this area (Jumia Pay, Paystack…).
On the other hand, and especially for SMEs, I think that playing on the #buylocal trend is a good way to avoid global competition. Paradoxically to the explosion of online shopping, some customers and sellers have started movements to encourage people buying local products. Some brands have understood this a long time ago but it seems that the 2020 crisis has accelerated the trend. I’m thinking about Simons in Canada, with “Fabrique 1840”. According to Peter Simons (CEO) himself: “We started building Fabrique 1840 five years ago, and the trend has really taken shape during the crisis.” (source)
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start an eCommerce business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
There are some common challenges to new business owners: profitability, product selection, logistics… But because we’re talking about ecommerce, which is by definition operated online, I’m tempted to talk about the mistakes I’ve seen specifically online:
- (Responsive) design: Trying to save money on an online store’s design is not a good idea. According to a study from Northumbria University cited by Search Engine Journal, design is more important than a website’s content to gain customers’ trust. On the other hand, there are still too many ecommerce stores that don’t have a responsive design (i.e mobile- and tablet-friendly). However, traffic from mobile devices and mobile shopping is constantly increasing. According to OuterBox’s latest study on that topic, “during last year’s (2019) busy holiday shopping season, a third of all online purchases came from smartphone users.”
- Content: Some online retailers list their products without worrying about their product descriptions. This can not only lead to bad user experience (20% of purchase failures are potentially a result of missing or unclear product information, a study said) but also have a negative impact on the product’s ability to be found in search engines, since search engines reward unique and rich content. I think good product descriptions should come from both customer personas and the product value.
- Navigation: Bad navigation leads to a bad customer journey. Complex website structure, too many steps (or clicks) in the buying journey or sold out products everywhere on the website are all obstacles to the sale. Ecommerce businesses should map their customer journey and think about internal linking strategies from the start in order to avoid redesigning their websites afterwards.
- (Online and multi-channel) customer service: Modern customer services must be provided through many different channels, such as chat boxes or social media. In this Salesforce blog post, you can see for example that “52% of customer service teams use online chat or live support, compared to 81% of customers who use online chat or live support for communicating with a company.”
In your experience, which aspect of running an eCommerce brand tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
It’ll depend on the industry of course, but in this pandemic context, I’ve noticed that what retailers have generally underestimated are delivery costs and delay.
According to Baymard Institute, shipping cost is the main reason why shoppers abandon their cart. And according to Shippo 2019’s ecommerce study, 21% of US retailers offer free shipping: free shipping doesn’t mean that you’ll make more sales but you’ll reduce the cart abandonment rate, improve the user experience and increase user retention.
At the same time, shipping time can lead to a very bad user experience, bad reviews and customer loss.
Shipping delays are usual during busy holiday periods and this peak generally lasts for a few weeks but, because of COVID, extended delivery delays lasted for several months. At one point Ikea Canada had announced 8 weeks of delivery delays and the company was flooded with complaints.
Can you share a few examples of tools or software that you think can dramatically empower emerging eCommerce brands to be more effective and more successful?
In my opinion, an emerging ecommerce brand needs at least 5 type of tools:
- A good CMS: Before starting your activity as an ecommerce brand, the first step is to build an appealing website with several options such as inventory management or secured money transfer. Tools like Shopify or BigCommerce allow you to easily build your website. A good host (OVH, AWS…) is also important to consider because the website performances will depend on it.
- Analytics: The ability to analyze the performance is essential in order to understand where your traffic and conversion channels stand and to constantly monitor the website’s health. Tools you will absolutely need are Google Analytics and Google Search Console, at the very least (plus, they are free).
- Keywords tools: In order for future customers to find you, your site must be visible to search engines. So you must think about search engine optimization and a keywords strategy. You can use tools like Ahrefs or SEMrush to identify the keywords that are most relevant to your website and that will bring the most revenue. For technical optimization (internal linking, content, status codes, load time…) I’d suggest OnCrawl or ScreamingFrog.
- Marketing tool: There are hundreds of marketing tools out there and it can sometimes be difficult to find your way around. Some tools are, however, necessary to improve your visibility. A few particular ones that come to mind are Buffer, which helps you organize your publications on social networks, and MailChimp, to customize your email templates. To go further with marketing automation, you could look at Hubspot or Marketo.
- Business tool: Who doesn’t need a good old CRM? CRM is critical for contact database management. There are many tools out there, from Close.io to SalesForce.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies an eCommerce business should use to increase conversion rates?
The average conversion rate across industries is between 1% to 2%. We talked about it earlier and there are some basics to maintain the average conversion rate: having an optimized navigation, the right design, creating content that builds trust… There are a few tips we can add on top of that:
- Limit distractions on the website and make sure you have a clear call to action
- Try different offers, limited coupon codes, discount and free shipping
- Offer a live customer support through chat box, and develop an actual strategy around that, so that customers don’t have to leave the website if they have questions or concerns
- Add customer reviews on product pages (and use incentives so that customers leave review after their purchase)
- Use remarketing campaigns for prospects who haven’t converted yet, using social media, display on the website, email or ads.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that an eCommerce business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
To me, there are three main factors to consider to build trust around your brand:
- Security: A trusted ecommerce brand must be at the forefront of site security. Secured installment and data protection must be the top priority of emerchants.
- Transparency: This can be as simple as adding an actual address on the website, and working on the “about” section
- Affirm your style and tell your story: For your users to like your brand. You need to stand out from thousands of other brands and assert a style that your users can relate to.
One of the main benefits of shopping online is the ability to read reviews. Consumers love it! While good reviews are of course positive for a brand, poor reviews can be very damaging. In your experience what are a few things a brand should do to properly and effectively respond to poor reviews? How about other unfair things said online about a brand?
To give an idea of how important reviews are in the ecommerce industry, customer reviews can increase conversions by 270% and 92% of consumers will hesitate to buy a product if there are no reviews left by other customers (Source). It is therefore essential that you have reviews on your products. Among these reviews, you may find yourself confronted with negative opinions. Here is some advice to deal with them:
- Anticipate: If you didn’t have a good PR management strategy yet, now is the time to put one in place. It’s so easy to leave bad reviews online that each and every online business should be prepared for it. And once the strategy is established, share it with all customer-facing teams.
- Always reply: Don’t leave a negative review unanswered or it might get worse. Respond to the comment in a courteous manner, show the customer that you understand the dissatisfaction and discuss a resolution.
- Go offline: If you can, try to direct the debate to a less public channel. Contact the person by email or over the phone to find out what went wrong with their experience. It is best to deal with the problem behind the scene.
- Follow-up and kindly ask to remove the negative review: Do not hesitate to follow up with the client to make sure that this time he is satisfied with his experience and that he has no other negative feedback to share. If your relationship is back on track, feel free to gently ask him to remove or update his review.
- Monitor: Monitoring reviews is essential in order to deal with them quickly and to remedy potential negative notices effectively. You can simply use Google Alerts to monitor your online reputation or other tools such as Hootsuite or Review Trackers.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful e-commerce business? Please share a story or an example for each.
We discussed many different ecommerce tips in this interview, and at this point I’d like to share 5 success stories, along with their success factors, that impressed me the most:
- Disruptive model: I think that every entrepreneur has dreamed at least once of creating a business from an idea that did not exist or to solve an unresolved problem. That’s what Chegg, the ‘Netflix for textbooks’ did, with the difference that they found success from a very old school industry: book rental. On top of that disruptive idea, they added another ingredient to their recipe for success: niche. Instead of targeting the general book rental industry, they’re focusing on students’ needs.
- Follow the trends (and your heart): I’ve been recently introduced to Faire.com and I was impressed by the quality of their website at first sight. Then I’ve been reading a lot about them and I think that one of their key success factors was to take the shop local wave but adding their own vision to create a wholesale marketplace for local products. Faire.com was not created in one day and the founders worked a lot on their idea. According to Max Rhodes, Co-Founder: “Once you’ve found a problem you’re passionate about solving for your customers, you need to build a business around that solution.”
- Make your own (online) space: Vistaprint is another of my successful customers. I want to quote one of their blog posts, because I think it’s an important success factor and Vistaprint itself, of course, has been really good at it: “The space your business owns online is just as important as a brick-and-mortar space.” Expressing your brand online is critical so that when customers think about your products or services, they actually think about your brand.
- Be true: when I think about successful ecommerce I think about one brand in particular, Luxcey.com and its founder, Rose Gwett. Rose has a social media presence as strong as her brand, which, I think, her clients love. The cosmetics industry is extremely competitive and also difficult because customers must develop trust towards your products. Rose enhanced the trustful relationship between her and her audience by being actively present online and true to herself and her customers, which I find very powerful.
- Use I couldn’t finish this interview without talking about how important a successful strategy is. Generally speaking, is often underestimated because it takes time to implement and to maintain. But it does not require a lot of funding and there are many great tools, blogs or freelancers that can help you go in the right direction. We have recently released a case study about a successful strategy implemented by one of our users, Carwow, who managed to increase organic traffic by more than 70% and its number of inbound leads by more than 68% in under a year, thanks to actions.
I’d like to add a bonus advice here, that you probably already know but it might be good to hear it again: patience. No business is successful overnight!
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Thank you for asking, because I’ve always dreamed of having my own online business. I’ve started a few websites, mainly in second hand clothing. Now I’m thinking of using both my digital and yoga background to bring more well-being to the corporate world. We previously discussed burn out and based on my own experience, it’s a sadly very common but preventable disease.
Remote work has also negatively impacted physical and mental workers’ health. That’s why I’m truly convinced that there’s something to do here, we have to bring solutions to people who are working from home.
How can our readers further follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!