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Roles

Many different people interact with an Internet commerce system, and they need to do different things. Buyers require one set of operations; catalog designers, customer service representatives, and system operators each have their own sets as well. Even though these latter groups may all work for the merchant, they have different tasks to perform. For some businesses, especially smaller ones, the same person may perform all these tasks. Larger businesses have different people fulfilling different roles. Considering roles separately enables us to satisfy the requirements of businesses of all sizes, as well as making it possible to design a system that allows a smaller business to grow smoothly without having to reconsider what people do at each stage.

Speaking in terms of roles also helps to avoid confusion. For example, simply referring to the customer does not distinguish the cases when one person is selecting a product to be purchased and another arranges payment. By defining the operations required by a particular role, we can ensure that everything needed by the role is present in the system, rather than relying on the ability of one person to act in multiple roles.

It is important to keep in mind that there might be individuals playing many different roles in some organizations, and that there might be many individuals playing the same role in a larger organization. For example, larger organizations commonly have many people in the customer service role.

Next we describe some of the primary roles for both the buyer and the seller.

Customer Roles

In any commercial transaction, there is a buyer and there is a seller. We use many different words for the buyer: customer, consumer, purchasing agent, and so on. On the Internet, we sometimes refer to the buyer as a client or browser as well, referring more to the software than to the person. But there are some subtle differences among these words, and the distinctions reflect different roles on the buyer side. In some cases, such as a consumer purchase, the same person plays all of the roles without even thinking about the differences. Businesses, however, often make purchases in different ways, so it is useful to consider the various roles.

  • Specifier—this person selects what is to be purchased.

  • Approver—this person approves a purchase recommended by the specifier.

  • Buyer—this person negotiates the terms and conditions of a purchase and arranges for payment.

  • Recipient—this person receives the delivered goods or services.

In addition, we can distinguish different kinds of buyers based on their relationships with the seller. An anonymous buyer (sometimes referred to as a walk-in customer) has no prior relationship with the seller and may not ever create one beyond making a simple purchase. A member customer is one who repeatedly buys from a seller and has established some kind of relationship, which we will call membership here. A member may sign up because an account is convenient, because it offers some special benefits, or because there is a business relationship that is reflected in the membership.

Membership accounts give rise to another role, the member administrator. A person acting in this role may modify or update any stored profile information about the member. If the membership encompasses several individual accounts, such as for different members of a family or multiple purchasing agents for a business, the member administrator may also be able to set limits on the use of the individual accounts. These limits might be on the kinds of items that can be purchased, the amounts that can be spent, the time of day for purchases, and so on.

In practice, of course, a single individual may fulfill more than one role. For example, a consumer buying a sweater selects one in a store, pays for it, and takes it home. In this case, the consumer plays all three roles, and we generally make no distinctions among them. In contrast, consider the electronic components example described in Chapter 2. The specifying engineer determines which part will be purchased, a purchasing agent negotiates the payment terms, and the manufacturing group receives the components for inclusion in the final product.

What this breakdown tells us is that a general-purpose Internet commerce system needs a way for different people to handle different parts of a transaction, but it should also be very simple for a single person to handle all of them. Consumers do not expect to change roles explicitly at every stage, but they do expect to have a quick and easy process for buying. Companies, on the other hand, that make distinctions in the various roles want to be able to hand off the transaction from one role to another smoothly and efficiently. Even consumer systems get value from a good implementation of roles. A wish list is something a specifier would use, and most systems permit orders to be shipped to different addresses.

Business Roles

On the other side of a transaction is the seller. There are many roles in an Internet commerce system for sellers. Smaller businesses, and even larger ones beginning with small-scale efforts in Internet commerce, may have just a few people playing all the roles—so much so that the different roles enumerated here may seem overly complicated. Thinking about the roles early, however, makes it possible for an Internet business to grow more smoothly as more people join the team and the roles become more distinct in reality. For the seller, there are two main groups of roles: the business and content creation team and the operations team. The most important business roles are as follows.

  • Business manager

    The business manager is responsible for the business approach on the Internet, creating and operating the Internet presence for the business, deciding which products and services are to be sold online, determining pricing, and establishing the key business relationships needed to make the venture successful. (We will discuss implementation strategies for these kinds of operations in Chapter 7.) This is primarily a business role, with particular attention paid to the success of the online business and the bottom line.

  • Internet commerce architect

    The Internet commerce architect is generally a systems analyst who turns the business requirements into a system design that incorporates the creation and management of content (such as catalogs) and the transaction processing, fulfillment, and technical aspects of customer service. In short, the architect fills in the next level of detail for the commerce value chain.

  • Content designer

    The content designer is responsible for the look and feel of an Internet commerce system, including graphic design, page layout, user experience, and so on.

  • Content author

    The content author creates or adapts product information in a form that can be used for Internet commerce, working within the design laid out by the content designer.

  • Implementor

    The implementor is responsible for creating any programs or software extensions needed to make the Internet commerce system work. For example, an implementor might write the software that takes product information from a database and dynamically renders it into a Web page.

  • Database administrator

    If a database of product information is used, the database administrator (DBA) manages the creation and operation of the database to ensure its correctness, integrity, and performance.

  • Sales and marketing team

    The sales and marketing team is responsible for focused efforts in promoting Internet-based commerce for the business.

  • Customer service representative

    Customer service representatives for the business answer questions about products, assist buyers with registration or the purchasing process, respond to inquiries about order status and problems after the sale, and handle product returns and payment disputes. A business may have different people specialized in different areas of this role.

Of course, a particular organization may have more than one person in one or more of these roles, or one person may act in many of them. Some of the decisions may be determined by software purchased from a particular vendor, in which case many people on the commerce team described previously must select which product to buy and how it fits in with their plans for Internet commerce. Some members of this team may be outside consultants, depending on the skills and availability of the organization's staff.

The operations team installs and operates the Internet commerce system, making sure that it is running and available for customers. Some specific approaches to system operation are discussed in Chapter 7. The roles include the following.

  • Operations manager

    The operations manager is responsible for managing all service activities for the Internet commerce system.

  • System supervisor

    The system supervisor manages the system staff.

  • System administrator

    The system administrator is responsible for the technical operations of the computer systems and networks.

  • Security officer

    The security officer ensures that appropriate security measures have been taken in the design and implementation of the Internet commerce system.

  • Fulfillment agent

    The fulfillment agent is responsible for shipping and handling of physical goods or delivery of services. In the case of digital goods, the fulfillment agent is responsible for overseeing the operation (and staff, if any) of the fulfillment system.

  • Accountant

    The accountant is responsible for ensuring that the proper accounting procedures have been followed for Internet-based transactions, managing the relevant business records, creating reports on the transactions handled by the system, and other accounting functions.

Roles and Reality

The roles we have described are probably not exactly the roles found at any particular business, and it is unlikely that there is any one-to-one correspondence between these roles and people doing real work. Thinking about roles instead of people, however, enables us to ensure that all of the work gets done and that we are not missing an important function as we design a system and put together a team to operate it. Making these distinctions also helps if some of the work will be outsourced. As we shall see in Chapter 7, there are many approaches to implementing a system, and sometimes it makes sense to outsource all or part of the operation of an Internet commerce system. Some of the roles here—the operational ones, for example—can be outsourced relatively easily. Others, such as deciding which products are to go into the online catalog, are business decisions that cannot be handed off to others.

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