I am very pleased to be here today to share my experience of the e-commerce skills I see we need to help companies of all sizes in all sectors in all countries to take advantage of the digital revolution.
I’m Sarah Carroll and I am the author of Grow Fast, Grow Global: 6 steps to unstoppable international growth in the digital age and the founder of Grow Global, a niche consultancy and training company, specialising in growing businesses internationally using digital strategies.
Over the past 10 years I’ve worked 1:1 with over 700 companies who are growing their businesses globally using digital channels.
I’ve also had over 4,000 delegates on my webinars, seminars and workshops showing them how to use websites, e-commerce, e-marketplaces and s-commerce for international trade, to make them both world class and visible online around the world.
So with the experience of working with some 5,000 companies, mostly while working alongside national trade promotion agencies, including UK Trade & Investment and now the Department of International Trade (in the UK), with Invest NI (in Northern Ireland), NZTE (New Zealand) and ExporTT (in Trinidad and Tobago), I decided it was time to pause.
I looked back at the companies that have crossed my path – why some had been successful, why some had plateaued, why some had given up and why some had not even got off the starting block. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t.
Importantly, I noticed that every company goes through a similar digital journey on their quest for more online international sales and I also identified a 6-step method outlining what each business needs to do for profitable, sustained international digital growth.
Today our focus is on developing e-commerce skills in SMEs and in developing countries, in particular in Africa.
So, I’m going to share with you some of my findings and ideas on the skills businesses need to sell more online cross-border.
E-COMMERCE IS DIGITAL SALES
What exactly is e-commerce these days?
Some companies just have a website and can generate leads – we musn’t forget that although a lot of the focus when talking about e-commerce is always on selling to consumers (B2C), even more business is done online through business to business sales and in some economies, like the UK, about 80% of the economy is in fact services.
Other digital sales channels where a lot of business can be generated are:
- E-commerce (selling through your own website)
- E-marketplaces (selling through the likes of Amazon, Ebay, Tmall, Lazada, Mercado Libre)
- S-commerce (selling through a Facebook or Instagram store or through WeChat)
A final way is to sell through local partners online – putting your products and services on a local agent, distributor or stockists or retailer website, or getting them to manage your listings on a local e-marketplace. This can be one of the fastest ways to increase sales in another country.
There’s five main digital sales channels for now – but look what’s coming … c-commerce (chat or conversational commerce), v-commerce (voice commerce or will that be video commerce?). Who knows what is around the corner!?
E-COMMERCE SKILLS PROBLEMS
So why isn’t everyone selling online across the world?
After all, it’s a great idea, isn’t it?
There really are lots of reasons for this, but in relation to e-commerce skills this is what I have found:
- It’s a big ‘ask’ to go both international and digital and although it should be open to every entrepreneur and business owner, it is often seen as too complex and only for big multinationals with the rewards being out of reach for SMEs.
- Leaders of established SMEs often just don’t ‘get’ digital, preferring to stick to traditional business models, so don’t invest in digital skills and end up getting left behind. They also have to face some stark choices as some of the people they have had in their businesses for a long time are not the ones that will take the business forward in the digital age.
- Entrepreneurs in new companies often don’t know where to start and are balancing the development of their digital skills against other priorities in their businesses.
- Real digital expertise is in short supply worldwide. There are hundreds and thousands of digital freelancers and agencies in every country, able to get companies started on their digital journey, but not many of them are consistently operating at the level that we need to fast track international digital growth.
- The depth of digital expertise needed is really deep these days and you just can’t find it in one marketing person anymore. A true expert in search engine optimisation (SEO) is not likely to be a top level expert in optimising product listings on Amazon or Facebook Ads.
E-COMMERCE SKILLS ECO-SYSTEM
So is it only the entrepreneurs we need to upskill?
First of all the primary focus is always on the skills needed by our SMEs.
From my experience, I would suggest that the upskilling project is much much wider than this.
We need to be looking at the whole of the business eco-system to get to our end goal of getting our entrepreneurs to flourish and succeed in this digital age.
In the UK, we found that few business advisers, from international bank managers to international trade advisers, were confident to talk to the companies about the opportunities e-commerce can offer, as they were too embarrassed to get caught out from a lack of knowledge.
There are five main groups that need to develop e-commerce skills to some degree – we have a massive task ahead!
- Companies: The companies themselves, from the founder to all team members, to really really understand how to operate as a digital business
- Implementers: Web companies and digital agencies need upskilling on how to do all this international and digital stuff properly and implement it impeccably to enable fast digital growth. The businesses can rarely do this well themselves, on top of running their day-to-day businesses.
- Innovators: We need an environment to encourage tech companies to come up with new and faster and easier technical solutions – it can get a bit complicated all this e-commerce stuff, with cross-border payments, shipping, sales tax to name but a few – so the easier we can make things the faster our progress will be. They need to be given support to grow and develop themselves.
- Intermediaries: What I call intermediaries are all the advisors who are in close contact with the businesses on a day-to-day basis – the chambers of commerce, the trade associations, the accountants, the business bankers, the business lawyers – this list is actually very very long. They can be key in the awareness raising of e-commerce as a business model.
- Governments: Governments and regional and trade development agencies who are responsible for improving the economic well-being of literally hundreds and hundreds of businesses in their countries, regions or cities like the intermediaries need to be the catalyst.
- The companies, the implementers, the innovators, the intermediaries, the government agencies… They all need to be part of the digital revolution and have an understanding of e-commerce…
INTERNATIONAL E-COMMERCE SKILLS MATRIX
So which e-commerce skills do we need to get an e-commerce business to flourish and succeed and sell around the world?
There are four sets of skills every international digital business needs:
- Personal qualities / “We’re the best in the world at what we do” (The Travelwrap Company)
- Business skills / “I trust my team and everything is automated” (Mathmos)
- International skills / “We work though a checklist for each new country” (Trinca-Ferro)
- E-commerce skills / “With e-commerce there are no limits” (Dotty Fish)
I uphold that over 90% of the skills can be taught or learnt and the other 10% can be developed through coaching. But, of course, not every company around the world has the ambitions to be a global e-commerce hit!
INTERNATIONAL E-COMMERCE SKILLS CHAIN
There are literally hundreds and hundreds of skills needed … here’s some of them to give you a taste … no wonder our SMEs find it so hard sometimes!
#1 PERSONAL QUALITIES
Quest to learn
Try something untested
I guess I’ve just described someone who is entrepreneurial?
Do you know someone like this?!
#2 BUSINESS SKILLS AND KNOW-HOW
Selecting a winning product or service
Product & service development
Great customer service
Understanding accounts & profitability
Loving the sales & marketing process
I’m starting to describe an MBA now, but you get my drift!
#3 INTERNATIONAL SKILLS AND KNOW-HOW
Compliance & regulations
Getting paid promptly
Managing distributors or agents
The list is endless …
#4 E-COMMERCE SKILLS AND KNOW-HOW
No one person in a company can have the depth of digital skills that are needed today.
So are these skills all related to running an e-commerce business?
You know what I’m going to say!
All the personal qualities, the business skills, the international skills are all needed whether you are running an e-commerce business or not.
It’s only digital skills that you need for an e-commerce business today.
But, having said that, I would even go further and propose that digital skills should not be isolated just for e-commerce businesses.
Being in business is being digital these days, so they are needed by EVERY business.
INTERNATIONAL DIGITAL JOURNEY
That is a lot of skills to possess and develop… but the good news is, companies don’t need all these e-commerce skills at once.
What I have seen is that different skills are needed at different points in the international digital journey.
While writing my book, I discovered a typical international digital journey that every business takes.
They start off at ‘Educate’, not at all aware that they can go digital or international
Next, even when they find out that they can change their businesses, they spend sometimes years procrastinating, missing out on the potential for online sales all that time
When they do get going, they often deviate, use their friend’s cousin’s uncle to build their website for them, not always with perfect results… but despite this they might make a sale or two.
Which brings them on to think that there may be something in this ‘digital’ stuff after all! They might see their competitors doing more online, so they decide (finally) to take it seriously, entering the ‘orientate’ stage and build a good website or put listings on an e-marketplace in their country.
At Dedicate, digital becomes core to their business, it wouldn’t survive without it and it is over 50% of their revenue. Things are rocking and rolling now!
Now they are ready to go international and pick the first country to target – this is a tough stage as there is so much to learn and so much to do as they duplicate their online business in another market.
The good thing is that once they have mastered the art of duplicating their business, they can then do it for another country and another country after that. Then it gets easier as they replicate their business across the world.
Finally, they reach the pinnacle where they are effortlessly selling across many countries and many of the different digital sales channels.
So as an example, at the beginning in the Deviate stage, a company might list a few of their products on Amazon and build a simple website on a platform like Squarespace themselves. They can probably teach themselves how to do this in a day. But the images they use might not be that good, the text doesn’t really explain why they’re different and they’ve done nothing to optimise it behind the scenes so it is visible, so will only be getting a handful of leads or sales.
But at the Dedicate stage, a company is on top of their e-commerce website, it is world class and they are monitoring their Google Analytics daily, with a full digital marketing campaign, using Google AdWords, Facebook Ads, sending out e-newsletters – finding ways to increase their already substantial online sales, usually with an e-commerce manager in place. They will need sophisticated e-commerce skills by this stage.
Once they get to Duplicate, they need skills in the technical side of setting up international e-marketplace listings or developing and optimising an international website, as well as an understanding of how to commission translations to international shipping, tax and duties.
So we do have a bit of time on our side as the companies move up through their international digital journey!
ACTIONS TO IMPROVE E-COMMERCE SKILLS
How can governments and intermediaries help to get more companies up the international digital journey?
The role of government/regional development agencies and the intermediaries is crucial in awareness and providing training to get companies started and develop their potential.
Businesses can get quite a long way up the international digital journey on their own, but they reach a point where they need a helping hand. I have seen that they progress faster and a larger number will be successful if we make it easier for them to get started and support them along the way, so they don’t make the same mistakes as those who have gone before them…
So for the companies we need:
Training/online courses/How to guides
1:1 digital audits/strategy sessions
Digital accelerator programmes
And a similar set of activities for intermediaries and government agencies:
Training/online courses/How to guides
The key is then to develop digital champions, give them coaching and even train the trainer, so they can cascade the skills throughout the country
Over five years, I’ve had international trade advisers, international bank managers, members of chambers of commerce and trade associations attend my seminars and workshops, sit in on my 1:1 meetings with clients and even get formal workshops in some cases. This has upskilled many advisers to identify companies that are ready to adopt the e-commerce model, and some have gone on to be digital champions and digital trade advisers for example.
There is no doubt, this is a lot to organise!
I would say even the biggest and most advanced e-commerce economies in the world haven’t got it completely right at the moment and their companies are losing opportunities left, right and centre. There is a massive e-commerce skills gap everywhere you look. Most certainly, it’s not just in developing countries.
E-COMMERCE BUSINESS IN A BOX
Finally, what I see is that everyone is reinventing the wheel, time and time again, across the world. Everyone thinks their business is unique. But believe me, most e-commerce businesses are very similar whether they are selling designer shoes or aluminium casing.
So rather than spending years and years of trial and error, what if we packaged up what works best for entrepreneurs in Africa and other developing countries?
Can’t we fast track them and produce an e-commerce business in a box?
Introduce the businesses to the right tech platforms, the right training and mentoring, the right processes, the right templates and the right tools to get businesses started and selling to customers all over the world.
On the 80/20 rule, that would serve most of the companies we need to give the opportunity to get into e-commerce and grow their businesses globally in the digital age.
And when all these factors are present, companies make amazing progress the world over, from our lovely Trinca-Ferro who went from a turnover of £20,000 to £200,000 in two years and now has tripled that to the amazing digital companies coming out of Africa like the Jumia marketplace and 2KUZE, the digital platform for farmers we heard about earlier this week.
In this way, I really do believe that we can change the fortunes of millions of businesses across the world, showing them how to compete in this digital age, giving a digital livelihood to millions of families.
The question is: shall we do it?
Speech delivered at the United Nations, Geneva, 18 April 2018
at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development E-Week
Understanding into action: e-commerce skills development for Africa’s entrepreneurs
To develop the e-commerce skills in your country, GET IN TOUCH with Sarah here.