Scroll to top

Merchants Are from Mars, Developers Are from Uranus

Mark Lewis - August 15, 2019 - 0 comments

This is a preview of the presentation that I’ll be presenting at MageX in Austin, TX Sept 12/13. The topic is “Thinking about communication as a developer, manager, or merchant in the ecommerce development process.”

Whether you’re a merchant, project manager, developer, or somewhere in-between, if you work in eCommerce, you probably have to interact with a member of one of these groups daily. And you might have thought at some point “It feels like we’re speaking completely different languages” because it seems like you told someone exactly what you meant, but they didn’t understand you. 

Misunderstandings are particularly rampant in this day and age where so much communication takes place remotely over the phone or text where you lack verbal cues or even vocal inflection. With poor communication, you might get the project done eventually but the road you have to travel to get there is disorganized and creates a distrust that makes it so much harder working together. Communication has a compounding effect over the life of a project or working relationship and is often the biggest factor in the success or failure of the project. If a project fails because of some sort of technical limitation or even just poor sales at the end of the day there’s often no hard feelings. But if a project fails because of poor communication, it usually leaves a very bad taste in everybody’s mouth and will likely prevent you from working together on any project in the future or getting a referral.    

In my talk, I’m going to give you a secret Babel fish for translating developer-speak to merchant-speak and vice versa. (With the global development community, actual language might be a barrier, but that’s a different subject.)

Communication Paths

There are many different communication paths, each with their own nuances. If you approach communication from a place of empathy, you can make the road much smoother and enjoyable for everyone. (It might even result in some cost savings!).  

These paths include (but are not limited to!):

  • Developer to Merchant
  • Merchant to Developer
  • Developer to Manager/Intermediary to Merchant
  • Merchant to Manager/Intermediary to Developer

Developer to Merchant

I’ve been a developer for over 50% of my life now, so this is the communication path I’ve had the most experience with. It’s also the one I’ve had to improve the most because when I started as a developer, I was a terrible communicator. And in the past year, I also had the unique experience of having a stroke and having to rethink and rebuild my ability to communicate from scratch over the course of a few months. Through that experience, I was able to watch my communication methods evolve in real-time as I recovered. (Fortunately, I have a great team that took over a lot of the communication during my recovery as well as very understanding clients that weren’t offended by my terse emails and conference calls for a few months.)

There are fantastic services like Commerce Hero that connect merchants directly with developers that can cut out the “middle man” of an agency. However without some coaching and instruction, some merchants and developers are going to find themselves incompatible with each other; and this has nothing to do with their technical skills or abilities, but rather their communication skills. To have a pleasant experience they’ll either need to find a developer or merchant that fits their communication style, find a project manager to act as a filter/translator, or learn on their own how to modify their communication to be more compatible with each other.

Let’s get into some real-world examples. Suppose a client writes this email to the developer:

From: Merchant

To: Developer

Subject: Urgent Checkout Isn’t Working!!!

Body: Customer service just got a call and a customer reported the checkout isn’t working. Help!!

10 years ago this might have been my response:

From: Developer

To: Merchant

Subject: Re: Urgent Checkout Isn’t Working!!!

Body: I checked the site and everything seems fine.

Factually, this response might be correct because the checkout might actually be working fine and the customer reporting the issue just has some weird Chrome extension breaking their browser. But from a communication/empathy perspective, this is a terrible response because it makes the merchant feel like you’re not taking their issue seriously. However by the “urgent” subject line and amount of exclamation points, clearly, the merchant is very concerned. And instead of listening to their concerns, you’re invalidating their feelings and basically saying “Calm down. Nothing is wrong.”

So how could a developer respond with the same information, but in a way that makes the merchant feel like you’re taking their concern seriously?

First off, as soon as you get this type of email, immediately respond “I’m on it!” so they know whether you’re looking at the issue and they’re not just sitting there freaking out wondering if you’re even at the computer or taking a nap. 

(As a pro-pet workplace, naps are encouraged at Netalico and the biggest source of nap interruption is urgent emails)

The merchant is probably sitting there thinking:

“Holy crap, this person can’t checkout. Can nobody check out? How many sales are we missing because of this, and how much paid marketing are we actively losing money with because of this?” 

And maybe they even tried the checkout and it worked for them but that’s even more confusing because they can’t pinpoint what’s going on and you, the developer, are the only person who can help them.

So after you’ve been able to investigate the issue, here’s a better response:

Hey Merchant,

I just did a test order on the checkout and it went through (see screenshot) so there doesn’t seem to be a global issue, but there may be a customer-specific issue that they’re running into. Would it be possible to get a bit more details or a screenshot from customer service so I can try to reproduce it? As soon as I’m able to reproduce it I’ll be able to dig into it a bit more and get to the bottom of it!

Thank you!


This response can be broken down into this simple formula with the catchy acronym, ARVAR:

  1. Acknowledge – As soon as possible, let the merchant know you’re looking into it.
  2. Reproduce – Try to reproduce the issue with the information you’re given (which might not be very much).
  3. Validate – If you’re able to reproduce the issue, confirm with the client that you’re seeing the same problem. If you can’t reproduce it, acknowledge that there might still be an issue and provide some proof like a screenshot or order number that you completed a test successfully.
  4. Ask – If you’re not able to reproduce the issue, ask for more details that you think will help you reproduce it. This also helps train clients in the future to give you better information upfront, reducing the back and forth and ultimately being able to solve the issue quicker.
  5. Reassure – Sandwich your response with some reassurance that you’re taking the issue seriously. Especially if you’re not able to reproduce it because otherwise, it can seem like a denial that there’s even a problem.

To Be Continued At….  MageX 2019 – Experience Commerce

Come to MageX September 12th and 13th in Austin, TX to hear the full version of this talk where we’ll dive deeper into Developer to Merchant communication and as Merchant to Developer communication as well as hear many more amazing speakers!

Also published on Medium.

Author avatar

Mark Lewis
Mark brings with him over 15 years of web development expertise and over 8 years of eCommerce development experience working with Magento, Shopify, and WordPress design.

Related posts

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *