Ecommerce executive recruiting

Formulating the right questions to ask before you start the interviewing process is key when hiring senior ecommerce leaders.

Spring traditionally ushers in my busiest season of the year when it comes to ecommerce executive recruiting. That was certainly the case in 2019, and the COVID pandemic notwithstanding, I have been getting plenty of inquiries here at Bernhart Associates. Companies may not be ready to pull the trigger just yet, but that time will come. With millions of people spending much more time at home, they are doing more of their shopping online. As a result, many of my ecommerce clients are not just surviving but they’re actually seeing increases in some of their product categories.  When it comes to marketing, which is my world, I believe ecommerce leader hiring will once again come on strong later this year. This is especially true in B2B where there is an entire subset of companies in more traditional industries such as construction and manufacturing that have practically avoided ecommerce.In the post pandemic world, digital sales and marketing in B2B will become a “must have” regardless of the industry you’re in.

If you’re thinking about hiring a new ecommerce leader sometime in 2020, whether it be a Manager or a Director or even a Veep- new or replacement- this post will give you some guidance on the critical questions you should be asking before you begin your search. The most feared response I get from employers when I ask essential questions about what they’re looking for is, “We haven’t thought about that,” or, “We’re not really sure.” Believe me: Candidates will ask the same questions.

Here are your top four:

Should this ecommerce leader report directly to the top, or report up through marketing or IT?

That depends. The reporting relationship will speak to your commitment to ecommerce and the message you want to send to the outside world about the importance of the online channel at your organization. A VP or higher ecommerce leader, at larger companies, will typically report to the President or CEO when your web business is at least as big as any of your other sales channels. Essentially, that puts this person on par with other business heads who participate in executive planning sessions that influence the overall direction of the company, which can include Board interaction. At the Manager or Director level in mid-sized or larger companies, ecommerce typically falls under marketing, or if there’s is no marketing, sales or customer-facing responsibilty it can be slotted into operations. IT had control of ecommerce back in the earliest days of online commerce when businesses didn’t know where else to put it. These days I recommend it only if the position is going to be a predominately technical position such as web development.

What do you want your Ecommerce Leader to achieve?

Ecommerce does not operate in a vacuum. The key to understanding this question is knowing how ecommerce will align with your other broader-based business goals. Do you expect ecommerce to eventually match, or even overtake, other sales channels, and when do you expect that occur? Will you need a CRM strategy to maximize customer loyalty? What kind of an investment are you willing to make to achieve all of this? Are you building an ecommerce business from scratch, or are you looking for someone to accelerate your current efforts? It takes different skills and experiences to launch an ecommerce business from the ground up versus taking an existing $100M enterprise, and tripling it. Use the answers to these questions to help build your job description. It is not uncommon for companies to “overhire” these types of positions for the future. That’s OK in ecommerce, but I can’t emphasize this enough: Evaluate and understand your short-term and long-term needs before you even think about starting an ecommerce executive recruiting search.

Should the ecommerce leader manage a team that is remote or on-site, internal or outsourced?

Let me state right from the get-go that I am not a big fan of hiring remote if this is your first major ecommerce hire. Sure, it might make it more difficult to attract someone if you’re in a more rural market, but your first choice should be to try to find someone who can work on-site, particularly if you’re a mid-sized or larger business. Ecommerce is a team sport. Ecommerce interacts with practically all departments and strong communication is vital, particularly in environments where online commerce must be fully integrated with other channels. Your next choice should be someone who can show a track record of success working remotely. The key word phrase here is “track record.” They’re out there. I have placed them. They totally understand what is required to make it work, and they have done it.

As for in-house versus outsourcing, it comes down to skills and time. Digital commerce is a complex machine that requires a long list of specialized know-how. It also takes time to seek out and engage dependable outside specialists. There is no “one size fits all” to this, but based on my experience, outsourcing has been a common choice among my clients that were experiencing a growth spurt, were developing a competitive advantage in a core operation, and wanted to maintain and build on that. Most mature online businesses will develop a hybrid approach.

ecommerce executive recruiting

How can I avoid some of the ecommerce executive recruiting mistakes that have dogged other online businesses?

Culture, culture, culture. Qualifying an ecommerce leader is pretty straightforward once you know what key questions to ask. Then, the conversation turns to fit… or sometimes, it doesn’t. Ecommerce leaders, by definition, are change agents. They are envelope pushers. They move businesses in uncharted directions. That means they have to mesh within the culture of your existing organization, or sometimes that even means slight changes to your culture. You must know the right questions to ask to ensure that they will be a lasting, impactful hire.

Remember Bernhart’s Third Law of Ecommerce Executive Recruiting: Success at one dot com does not guarantee success at another. In fact, that is often NOT the case. Avoid the temptation to hire because they came from as brand name you admire or trust. The more important questions are things like P and L responsibility, specific performance metrics, operational efficiencies, market trends they were facing, etc.

These questions are not meant to be all inclusive, of course. I have been known to spend more than two hours drilling deep with an ecommerce candidate. But these are some of the key questions you need to ask to help you identify the right leader for the role.