Why have an e-business strategy?

This article is written for the cpa that consults with or works at a small to medium sized business with no e-business strategy. Many business people I talk to think that doing business over the Internet is expensive and risky. They ask me how long can I put this off? I've heard prospective customers tell me that they don't want to give their competitors too much information about their customers and methods of doing business.

I hear these concerns and believe there is validity to all of them. However…the Internet offers so much for our employees, customers, and potential customers that the risks are well worth taking-even if your business is very small or already profitable.

Some of the benefits are the following:

Convenience. The Internet allows us to offer our customers unprecedented convenience…anytime, anywhere. A good example is a small start up company named “Simple Simon”. They offer groceries over their web site. They remember your past orders, are price competitive, and cut food shopping time in half. Anyone who has brought more than one small child with them shopping can appreciate the value of having someone bring your groceries to you for free after spending only a few minutes on the computer.

Savings. A sale over the Internet is not labor intensive. It's labor free. This allows you to pass savings onto your customer, expand your business or take home the profit. All are good options.

Time Saving. By giving prospective buyers the information they need to make good choices you save time, they save time and you deal with better informed buyers. By sharing sizes, colors, services, times, benefits, mission statements, methods, etc. you are allowing your customer to sell themselves on you.

The Goal and Plan
Your goal should be specifically stated and measurable. Many web sites I've seen appear to appeal too much to prospective customers and ignore the opportunity to serve existing customers and attract new employees. Your site initially should focus on delivering a consistent marketing message rather than on order fulfillment or any of the more complex parts of an Internet strategy. Since one of the main goals with most sites is to attract new customers, you will need to plan a way to direct traffic to your site. Frequently updating your site and submitting your changes (submit-it.com), helps to drive traffic your way. E-mail marketing to a customer base with a web link is now becoming more popular.

In planning your strategy make sure to include dates and who is responsible. Also, be sure to include many people's opinions. A solid plan should start you with web marketing, and move to e-commerce. E-commerce can be defined as any of the following: customer self- service, vendor self-service, order fulfillment, customer ability to check on inventory status and order status, the ability to enter time sheets and expense reports through a browser.

How to begin
Create your web site in outline form in writing. Share it with the people you intend to serve. Ask them if it is useful and if they would use it. For example in our business the three main groups we serve are our employees who sell their time, our customers who buy services, and our prospective customers who want choices in accounting software configurations. I created my model in Excel because information was easier to disseminate this way. Putting in writing allowed me to get more and better quality feedback as well.

Once you've gotten your plan reviewed by the people you want to serve, share it with a web developer, draw it on paper, or document it with a program such as Microsoft Visio. This will make clear to the person creating your web site what they need to create. Too many people give web developers vague instructions and end up paying too much for their web sites due to their lack of instruction to creative people.

See if it's working
Here are some questions to ask yourself to see if your site works: Are customers taking advantage of the conveniences you've created for them such as the new web-based pricing mechanism? Have you made it easy for them to bookmark your site? Have you made it easy for them to give feedback. Have you reminded them it's there? Are you tracking who is reading various portions of your site and newsletters (e2software.com does this well for you). Have you made it fun? Are you asking people that call in how they got your name? Are you remembering to resubmit your site to the search engines?

Adjust your plan
The above step of “see if it's working” is the most important step in the process. Once you've figured out what works and doesn't work, it's easy to keep what works and replace what doesn't work. For example if you've found your site is bogged down by a fun part of your web site you've created to entertain, you may consider moving it to an area where paying customers can get to it easily once they submit their password.

The most important adjustment many people make here is to get rid of slow loading graphics and “flash” presentations that cause people to want to click past your page due to impatience. Simplifying the main page and not trying to cram everything into the main page is another key improvement that many make after analyzing what works.

Reap the profit
As accountants we sometimes discount the value of companies that appear overvalued and have never made money. However, the entire economy is moving toward the internet for its ability to deliver more, more conveniently, faster and cheaper. Jump on the bandwagon. You'll benefit greatly whether or not you are in a market that has been slow to accept the ubiquity of the web.

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