Why Websites Are Never Finished AKA Ongoing Digital Transformation: Part 1

A Shift

At Solspace, we've noticed a change in the nature of our business over the last five years or so. Once upon a time, clients would come to us to build websites for them. Lately clients have come to us to support the ongoing care, feeding, and growth of their websites.

Sometimes a client will come in asking for some sort of an ongoing maintenance and support contract. But other times they will come in with a specific tactical task they want to have handled. In both cases, the relationship and the engagement seem to grow and blossom. We may start by fixing a bug or two on the website, but before too long, we're helping our clients plan and tackle larger web initiatives that fall somewhere short of full website rebuilds. We were continually frustrated that we did not quite have language to describe the phenomenon.

Expectations And The Need For Language

It was important to us that we develop language to describe the kind of work we do. We can't offer a service that we can't describe. Expressive language was also needed so that we could properly set expectations with new clients. In both cases, the language would help us serve our clients better; first by helping them find us, and second by helping them succeed with us.

Approximate Descriptors

A client who initially came to us expecting to spend a few hundred bucks a month ended up with a monthly spend in the thousands. They were a very happy client. The unexpected expense did not annoy them. Their investments in their web ecosystem returned a business ROI quickly, clearly, and obviously. The budgets involved did not match the expectations one might have when using the word 'maintenance' or 'support'. Those were the obvious terms. But you don't spend five figures a month on 'maintenance'. An oil change is 'maintenance'. A simple software upgrade is 'maintenance'. So what was going on?

We also tried 'care and feeding'. This phrase was also weird. Care is a nice word. It does capture the seriousness with which you approach your digital properties. When you care for something, you want to see it flourish over time. Feeding is odd, though. I had a fish that I had to feed every day so that it didn't die. The fish didn't do much. I feed my dogs every day, but that doesn't mean they get 20% smarter with every meal. They pretty much still lay on the couch all day, no matter how much care and feeding they've had.

A Deeper Dive

'Maintenance' wasn't accurate. 'Support' was incomplete. 'Care and feeding' came up short and was also weird. But we knew there was something here that deserved to be described properly. So we looked into the details. We looked at specific cases of what our clients had invested in and what they got for the investment. Once we did this, as one would expect, a pattern emerged.

Case One: The Configurator

As we were working through this language exercise, the Solspace team was separately building product configurators for two separate clients. Both clients sold complex electronic equipment. Both clients experienced the pains that come from selling complex, big-ticket products with a long sales cycle. And both clients wanted their existing corporate websites to do more work for them.

A product configurator is a web app, usually just a single interactive web page, that allows a potential customer to play with the different types of configurations of the products. Maybe they can experiment with rearranging logic boards in a system. Maybe they can explore how much power output they will have with a certain arrangement of power supplies. In short, the customer would be in the happy position of being able to tinker with and explore their own questions about the product line without having to bother a sales rep. And the sales reps would be in the happy position of focusing their attention on complex problem solving for their customers. The website took care of the easy stuff leaving the sales teams to do the more interesting stuff.

Both of the configurators we built dealt with had highly complex product lines, each with complex permutations and variables. Where a salesperson might have to pause and consult with a manual, an online configurator comes preloaded with all of the right answers. With a configurator, errors are reduced and customer satisfaction is increased. An online product configurator obeys all of the rules of what I call Web Reliability. It goes a long way in reducing the friction of customers getting what they need from a website.

These product configurators were not cheap. In one case, mid-five figures were spent. In the other case, low six figures were spent. Did we overbill? No. Both of our clients immediately started seeing returns on their investment after launch. In a short period of time, both of these web initiatives will have paid for themselves monetarily. Plus, each has strengthened their standing with their customers.

These projects were undertaken by clients on their existing websites. This was not maintenance or support. This was not care and feeding. This was something else.

Case Two: The Salesforce Integration

Many of our clients use Salesforce to manage and track ongoing interactions with customers. They use Salesforce as part of how they advance a customer through the buying process. Sales reps can, of course, login to Salesforce and create customer records manually. But this is silly. When customers submit contact and white paper download forms on a corporate website, the customers have already provided their baseline information. Why does this have to be manually reentered?

Of course, I am describing the most baseline use of Salesforce. Many of our clients use Salesforce in a much more expansive way, folding it into many aspects of their business management processes. But even this simple problem illustrates our point.

A few years ago, clients began coming to us asking to integrate their contact forms with Salesforce so that submissions to their forms would automatically create contact and other records in Salesforce. The idea was to streamline the sales process by removing high friction / low return tasks.

We began offering a Salesforce integration service where we could integrate ExpressionEngine and Craft CMS websites with a client's Salesforce account. We were not redesigning or relaunching any websites. We were simply doing something under the hood that made things work more smoothly. We took a human process, manual data entry in Salesforce, and automated it. We flipped the switch and made it digital. Since then, the web development task is so common that it's integrated fully into our Freeform product out of the box.

Not maintenance. Not support. Not care and feeding. Not cheap, but an extremely quick return on investment. So what to call this?

Case Three: Steady Progress

The above two cases suggest that there are discrete things you can add to your website to reduce friction and better support the customer journey. But often our ongoing client work involves reducing, reusing, and recycling.

There are too many various types of projects to name for too many various types of clients, but a common thread is that our ongoing work involves making steady progress on improving a website's Web Reliability. Sometimes we'll spend a couple of months refactoring and cutting back unnecessary website code so that pages can load faster or be changed more easily. Sometimes we'll cut away old forms of code to unify a site's code base on a new standard. The improvements gained here take the form of page speed, SEO, extensibility, stability, and the like. Often we will build on data collected from various sources to help optimize under-performing areas of a website.

This is not maintenance exactly. It's not support. Nor care and feeding exactly. But it's some form of steady progress. What to call it?

Digital Transformation, Duh!

I'm a little slow on the uptake sometimes. A number of years went by before it occurred to me to try and describe the kind of work we do. I think enough people in parking lots and cocktail parties asked me what I did for a living. I got to a point where the answer of "I build websites" was pretty far from the truth. It turns out that there is already language for a company's process of moving more and more of their business into the digital realm. You've heard the term: Digital Transformation.

The term was first coined by Capgemini Consulting and the MIT Center for Digital Business Wikipedia's definition is my favorite:

"Digital transformation (DX) is the adoption of digital technology by a company. Common goals for its implementation are to improve efficiency, value or innovation."

Another useful definition comes from A Brief History of Digital Transformation:

"Digital transformation (DX) is a cross-departmental effort to reimagine the way a company uses its people, processes, and digital programs to drive new business and revenue in light of changing consumer expectations."

I recently read an excellent history of the digital revolution by Walter Isaacson: The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. Published in 2014, he lays out the history of the computer up to the age of the internet. His book ends in a state of wonder at how much of the world was yet to be transformed by the digital age. Solspace is a digital company. We're so completely embedded in this revolution that we sometimes can't see the forest for the trees.

It turns out Solspace has been a Digital Transformation company for years. Duh!

(Watch for part 2 of this post coming soon.)