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I could hear the frustration in his voice as Brother Barnabas described the year’s chaos in trying to upgrade his Web site so that it could handle more orders. A year ago, this Cistercian monk at Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Va., was trying to find better ways to earn money for his highly regarded operation.

The monks at this abbey are known around the world for making the best fruitcake on the planet. They sell the fruitcakes, along with a few other products, to support the abbey and their charitable activities.

Problem was, their e-commerce site was antiquated, and they badly needed to move to something with more capacity and better security. The means to accomplish this was to have more bandwidth installed, and to update their e-commerce solution.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work. The bandwidth problems were to be expected. Verizon controls that part of Virginia, and that company is legendary for its inability to get T1 lines right the first time. Or the second or third, for that matter.

But the monks thought they’d found the solution to getting their Web site updated. They hired a VAR that promised a turn-key solution. They’d get the new hardware they needed, plus the new e-commerce software that would handle everything from an improved shopping cart to printing the shipping labels.

Brother Barnabas said he was sure that the new e-commerce package would increase sales enough to justify the five-figure cost of having the work done.

The increased sales, of course, would ultimately mean more revenue for the monastery, and an increased level of funding for the monks’ activities and charitable works. In addition, it would allow them to meet the growing demand for their products generated by a growing number of feature articles, television shows and a greater Web presence. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be.

Despite a detailed set of requirements and assurance from the sales staff that the needs of the monks could be met, the project failed.

The software that was delivered contained features that weren’t required, and it was unable to perform the functions that were required. The monks had spent tens of thousands of dollars on hardware, software and services that they couldn’t use. Worse, they were forced to use for another year the software that already didn’t meet their needs. Sales to date have plummeted.

It’s hard to know exactly what went wrong here, but it’s not impossible to get some ideas. Part of the reason is that it’s clear that the VAR had started out by trying to use an off-the-shelf package. This makes sense, because it was undoubtedly necessary to do this to save costs. As you know, custom coding isn’t cheap.

Click here for a column on the pitfalls of e-commerce.

Part of the problem was that the monks have some unusual requirements, including an extremely limited staff with very limited training. Part of the problem is that there is no exact commercial solution. But the biggest part of the problem is that the VAR’s sales staff made promises without checking with the technical staff that had to deliver them.

We’ve all seen this problem before. The finger-pointing between sales and production is as old as the IT business. But there’s no reason it has to be that way. The solution is simple, at least in concept.

First, make sure the exact, detailed requirements are in writing, and that the customer signs off on them. Then make sure that the technical staff does the same. Sure, your sales guys might lose the occasional sale because the requirements can’t be met with the available solutions, but isn’t that better than doing months of work, only to find yourself refunding all of the money?

And that, of course, is the path the monks must travel—they didn’t get what was promised, so they’ll get their money back. But the cost of lost revenue won’t be replaced, and because of that, it’s the abbey and the community that will suffer.

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