The unsung hero of ecommerce: the humble database

On October 1st, 1962, Vassili Arkhipov – a Russian submarine commander – saved the world.

Two of his fellow commanding officers, having been out of contact with Moscow for a number of days, thought that war had broken out above the waves and gave the green light to launch a nuclear torpedo in response to American depth charges. A move which would have guaranteed nuclear war.

In a move of spectacular bravery, Vassili, whose agreement was needed to authorize the launch, refused to consent and persuaded the other two to surface and await orders.

Yet almost no one has heard of him today, despite pulling off one of the most courageous and proverbial-bacon-saving acts in history.

In the shadows of the ecommerce world there lurk similarly unsung heroes who, with little praise or fanfare, are patiently carrying out those crucial pieces of work that prevent online businesses from ruin.

Whilst the context for Vassili’s heroism was the Cold War, in the ecommerce world, it’s the software revolution.

The software revolution

Every company is now a software company.

Technology now underpins commerce to such an extent that the digital experience you deliver to your customers now counts every bit as much as the products you sell.

The catch is that the number of customer-business touch points have multiplied hugely – your customers increasingly make their way down your sales funnel via a complicated web of devices and platforms.

They might start out by stumbling on your Instagram whilst in the bath with their iPad. Then they’ll read your blog on their mobile on the way to work. They’ll read third party product reviews during a boring work meeting. They’ll pull the purchase trigger at the bus stop, yet abandon their basket on the bus. Whilst checking their email before bedtime they get drawn back via a well-timed email autoresponder.

If your technology is not up-to-scratch at any of these points, you lose the customer.

From our business-side perspective we see how hard it is to join up all the various systems that make ecommerce possible, from our CRM to our website, from our billing system to our communications etc.

The customer doesn’t care about any of that.

The customer doesn’t see the world in terms of clicks and sessions and devices. They just want to be able to find the product they’re looking for by whatever means they have to hand, somehow assure themselves that it is almost certain to meet their needs, and then acquire it with a minimum of fuss.

Which describes perfectly the holy grail of modern marketing: omnichannel.

Omnichannel and the database

Omnichannel involves leveraging different devices, platforms and customer information in such a way as to deliver an experience to the customer that is so seamless and unified that it is as if the different devices and platforms didn’t exist.

Omnichannel allows for greater customer knowledge, and therefore engagement, meaning that you can deliver more focused, preference-based marketing strategies. You can then also more easily measure and monitor the effectiveness of these strategies, all whilst delivering a far more personalised user experience overall. Operationally, increased inventory transparency across your company means you can optimise shipping costs and fulfil more orders.

All of which dazzles your darling customer and secures more sales across more channels.

Importantly, the onus lies not so much on each individual aspect of your IT estate being incredible, but rather on how they seamlessly integrate together.

But would-be-omnichannelers can overlook a vital cornerstone of ecommerce: the database.

Omnichannel can only truly be realised once all customer data, product data, financial data and distribution channels have been harmoniously forged into one unit and are turning in time with each other like the cogs of an elaborate timepiece.

And for that, a single, centralised database that’s connected to all distribution channels and platforms is indispensable.

Centralising data

The point of a single, central database is that it is continuously updated by both the actions of the customer (via any of their devices) and your staff (at PoS, on the move or in your office) in real time, such that both sides have complete visibility over the relevant processes, with minimal friction.

Maintaining multiple databases, meanwhile, can cause a lot of data inconsistency, which can limit the effectiveness of any data analytics and negatively impacts marketing and sales.

Data is the currency of ecommerce and the fuel of omnichannel. And the function of a good database application is to allow you to simply protect, access and manage that valuable asset.

It’s crucial to look after you database(s) properly, as a neglected database system can be a bottleneck to system performance and your omnichannel setup will only ever be as reliable as the database(s) supporting it.

This becomes even more important when we consider that omnichannel implies a very high rate of database change, expansion and innovation. This higher rate of change puts greater pressure on back-end systems, which need to keep up with the rate of change whilst still invisibly delivering top-notch service.

Properly maintained, a single, centralised database can provide a rock-solid foundation for a best-in-class omnichannel service.

The power of the database

To fully realise the importance – and potential power – of databases, it’s worth considering that one of the most successful companies in the world, Facebook, is in essence one huge database. The most relevant data (e.g. your friends’ updates or news from pages you have ‘liked’) are presented to you via any device and based on your onsite behaviour in real time. When you alter that database (e.g. by posting a comment on a friend’s photograph) this is instantly synced with their experience, allowing them to reply instantly, wherein lies the entire value of the social network.

So don’t let the heroes of your business go unsung!

Even if your fellow commanding officers think they should plow on blindly, perhaps it’s best to have a stop and a think about how to move forward in the way that’s best for everyone involved.

I’m sure Vasilli would approve.