What Every Small Business Needs to Know About E-Commerce
You know there’s been a lot of talk and “buzz” on the web about taking your business to the next level by finding new ways to “monetize” your products or service.
I’m a strong believer that leveraging the power of the web to multiply your business is the key to survival for small business owners in the future. Here are a few things that every small business owner should keep in mind if they’re considering adding any kind of e-commerce functionality to their website.
Know Your Audience or Niche
It’s very important for you do your homework and get to know the audience (or niche) that you are selling to online. Are the people who are interested in buying your products and services online the same people who buy them offline?
Ask yourself how e-commerce fits into your overall business strategy. Do you want it to play a big role in your business or is this something that you’re just “trying out” to see if there is anything in it?
If you answered yes to that last question, you may want to tread lightly here. Putting together an e-commerce site no matter how big or small will most likely take up quite a bit of time and in my opinion if done right, will cost you some money. Most small businesses don’t have “money to burn” so you want to make sure this is something you are willing to put some real time and effort into.
Have a Solid Marketing Plan
Once you know how e-commerce will fit into your business and you know who you are selling to you will need to come up with a solid marketing plan to sell your products or services.
You will need to consider if you need to initiate a “soft launch” or “pre-sell” before you even “open your cart” and make your product or service available for purchase – and you need a strategy for that.
Some people consider creating a strategic partnership with a larger company who already has the attention of their intended audience. Others use their existing list for their initial launch to see if there is any “real demand” before they commit themselves financially to a large production schedule or factory order.
There are all sorts of ways you can approach this, too many to go into detail here, but the point is to have a strategy in place. Be careful not to invest too much time, money and energy into your product or service and then put no time into how you are going to market it – that can be a recipe for failure.
If you don’t know where to start, do a little research online, there are marketing specialists out there who do nothing but help people launch products.
Invest in Solid Technology & Professional Services
There is a lot of planning involved when you are creating an e-commerce site or even a shopping cart. You will have to think about things like, how your customers are going to pay you. Are you going to pack, pick and ship your items or are you going to pay someone to do it?
What will your return policy be and will it cost you money to enforce it? For example, if someone returns an item, some payment merchant processors will charge you a second transaction fee.
You may also want to consider, how much “pre-production” time you will need? How much time you will need for photography or video? How long will it take to get samples to even shoot? Will you need a ghostwriter to help you map-out the e-book or video tutorials you want to sell online or write and proof all of those product descriptions?
Who will you hire to install the shopping cart and setup the shipping and merchant accounts? Are you going to hire a someone to do it or are you going to do it yourself? These are all questions you may need to ask yourself and make sure that you have the time to execute everything properly.
Having said that, I would like to take a moment here to emphasize the importance of investing in your business. As a small business owner myself – I know that money is tight and we have a habit of thinking we can just do everything ourselves, but the reality is we just can’t.
The great thing is, with the advent of all this new technology around us, you’re bound to find someone at a price that you can afford. As always, the buyer must beware, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can be a master-of-all-trades if you just apply yourself.
Invest in solid technology and professional services, from the beginning – otherwise you may end-up losing precious time and have to start from scratch. Focus on running your business instead of just running yourself into the ground. Trust me, there will be plenty for you to keep-up with even if you don’t everything yourself.
Make Sure Your Customers Have All the Info They Need
There’s an old saying, “A confused mind, never buys.” Shopping carts have a notorious abandonment rate (aka “attrition rate”). It’s in the range of 50 – 80%, so you want to be sure that you answer any of the questions a customer may have before they buy.
Make sure you’ve given them a decent product description and a clear return policy. Reassure them that your site and your merchant accounts are secure. Provide clear product shots and/or video.
Zappos, is almost as famous for it’s point-of-sale execution as they are for the shoes they sell. They leave no stone unturned – see for yourself here. It’s almost impossible for you not to know what you are buying and if you change your mind or you just don’t like it – that’s OK they’ve got that covered too.
Customer Service is King
This leads me to my final point, customer service. Customer service is king on the internet. I know people say it’s content, but truth be told you can have the best content and products and web traffic in the world, but it can all fall apart if you have poor distribution or customer service. Just because you sell on the web – does not mean you can hide behind your computer. You can’t really just set it and forget it.
If you don’t believe me, just ask some of your friends to share a few of their nightmare stories about trying to return something. How many times have you been on the phone with that “sweet” but completely clueless customer service rep who keeps putting you “on hold” while they try and figure out what to do?
Do yourself a favor – take the time to invest in a good “CRM Program” (customer service relationship management program). Whether it’s one you devise yourself or if you incorporate good CRM software application, like ZoHo CRM or Sugar CRM. A good customer service policy will save your business.
If we go back to our previous example of Tony Hsieh and Zappos, they actually made a decision, very early on, to spend more money on customer service and in their employees than even marketing.
The premise was they did not want to create a cycle of coupons and discounts (essentially “bribes”) to keep their customers happy, because it taught them to value the monetary relationship instead of the great service that Zappos provides them.
Zappos’ number one driver of growth isn’t competing on price or discounting merchandise – it’s through repeat sales from existing customers. Their tagline says it all, “Powered by Service”.
A “no excuses approach” towards good customer service both online and off is something that every business should strive to achieve. In fact, the ability to build personal connections with your customer, is actually the small business owner’s greatest strength.
The real excitement now is with the advent of technology, you can leverage those relationships and multiply your business using affordable, scalable distribution channels like e-commerce – on your website.
Question: Do you have a product or service that you would like to sell online but you just don’t know how? Share your comments or questions below.
Like what you see? Then join the conversation!
If you like this post, please “like” it on Facebook or share it with your friends on Twitter or LinkedIn.
This post was updated on April 18, 2020.
Knowing the differences between our online and off-line audiences has proven to be a struggle for us. Our problem is that we usually have low level techs research our products and/or services, but they are rarely the ones that make the purchasing decisions, nor are they even the ones that usually recommend what purchasing decisions should be made. Consequently, we have to design our website to be written for them and then completely change how we write our e-mails as those are usually done for the people making the actual purchasing decisions within a company.
Hi Ken – I think you may be on to something here. It appears to me that you see the members of your “email” list as something separate from your “online” audience, when they may be really a segment of it. A good way to put this to the test is to ask the customers on your email list what products or services they would like to see in an online store from you. You have a very specific audience – people looking for environmental monitoring equipment, so I’m pretty sure they know what they are looking for. But you… Read more »