In the days before the Internet, if you wanted to sell direct to customers, you needed to build a shop or establish a mail-order business using catalogues. Doing so would require the outlay of many thousands, if not millions, of dollars. With the arrival of the Web, you now have an inexpensive sales channel that gives access to millions of consumers worldwide. The Web provides an exciting commercial opportunity – provided you adhere to several important rules…
1. Be sure online selling is for you.
As a general rule, whatever can be sold in a print catalogue can also be sold on a website. But if a customer has to see, hold, or try something before buying, neither avenues are appropriate. Remember, when it comes to selling on the Web, it’s not where you are, but what you’re selling and how attractively you present the offer that count. The key is to select a niche small enough for you to dominate. For example, you may be hard-pressed to compete with Amazon.com in selling books; you may succeed, however, by specialising in books on folk poetry. One obvious way to dominate the market is to be the manufacturer. That way, you cut out all the middlemen who eat into your profits.
2. Ensure your site looks inviting.
Your website needs to inspire visitors with confidence. Consumers are reluctant to buy from an amateurish site; if your organisation cannot put up a good website, then potential customers will assume, rightly or wrongly, that you cannot deliver good products or services either.
3. Make sure your site is easy to use.
Internet users can be spooked very easily; potential customers or clients will leave at the slightest obstacle, e.g. having to register, or confusion over navigation, or an inability to find the product they seek on the site.
4. Check that your site looks credible.
Your website visitors need to be reassured that yours is a real and viable company. Convince them – include your name, a toll-free contact number, a street address, a brief company history, and customer testimonials. Ensure you display a healthy range of products or services. The larger the inventory, the more seriously your organisation is taken (e.g. Amazon or CDNOW). And if your ordering facility is shaky or questionable – are you really serious about wanting their business?
5. Make service your primary aim.
There are ways an online business can gain a reputation for quality service:
- Reassure reluctant customers. Outline how you will be providing top quality service, and guarantee they will be satisfied – or their money will be cheerfully refunded.
- To set a good impression and establish reliability, respond quickly to customer e-mail messages and inquiries. Check your e-mails several times daily.
- If a visitor asks for additional details about your business, a product, or service, have a brochure prepared so that you can e-mail back immediately.
- Offer a variety of credit card payment options. Some people prefer to pay by cheque. Make this possible. Include a privacy or confidentiality statement.
- For those customers nervous about sending their credit card details into cyberspace, have options, such as a 1800 fax line, available for them.
- Prepare a standard order-confirmation notice which advises the order number, shipping date, and estimated time of delivery. E-mail this back to customers after receiving their order.
- E-mail new customers a few days after delivering their order to thank them for their business and to seek feedback about your product and service.
- Explore ways to keep in contact with hard-won customers and clients. Send monthly or quarterly e-mail bulletins about new products, current specials, ideas for getting the most out of your product, and ideas for maintaining it.
6. Promote your site.
Success will depend on attracting people to your website. Explore the possibilities: promote the site on all your printed matter, tell the media, build e-mail lists, get on search engines, write articles, buy banner ads, cross-link with other sites, publish e-mail newsletters, have visitors bookmark your site, run contests, and so on.
7. Keep your site fresh.
Your site will evolve over time. Constantly seek ways to improve your site; it will never be perfect. As well, a site that has not changed for months is boring. It looks abandoned. Why should a customer return to it? Explore ways to change your site regularly – monthly, weekly, even daily – by rotating featured items on the front page, by including some news, or by upgrading its appearance.
8. Remember: it’s hard work!
The good news about selling on the Web is that it should be a lot cheaper, and you can reach a very large and scattered clientele. The bad news is that, just like any other successful business, it requires hard work. You don’t simply build an online site that looks after itself. You must work hard to build a site that people will want to buy from, to attract visitors, to give good service, and to make sure your customers return, and bring their friends with them.
9. Be patient.
For most online sites or stores, growth in customer numbers is slow at first. Don’t be discouraged. Work hard, promote your site, provide value adds, and your customer base will increase.
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