E-commerce is a great term. It’s the commerce we’ve all grown to know and love but with a twist. That little “e–” changes so much. The way we communicate with customers, their expectations for service, the way they find us, the way we fit into the marketplace — it’s all different.
Doing business online means that customers expect better, faster, and easier communication with your company. It’s no longer the norm to be open Monday through Friday 8-5 and to answer your phone when a customer calls. Now we need email, contact forms, support forums, online chat, phone, fax, and occasionally smoke signals. Customers expect you to respond quickly even if you’re 5 time zones away and it’s Saturday night. It can be hard to make the transition and meet customer expectations. There are some ways to make it easier:
- Know how to use the technologies – email, caller ID, call waiting, instant messaging, and online forums are great if used properly. But they are frustrating and stressful if you don’t. Either teach yourself about them, find someone to explain it to you, or hire people who get it.
- Turn it off – sometimes it’s okay not to respond. Just because you got a message asking about product sizes on Saturday at 3am doesn’t mean you need to respond then. Wait until Sunday or Monday to do it. Just make sure that when you respond your answers are clear, courteous, and helpful. Don’t ignore people, but for your own sanity know when to take a break.
- Communicate more often – Start an email newsletter, a blog, or a mailing list for discussion. Talk to your customers often about the thing you are passionate about – your business. Take time each day or week to tell people about what you can do to make them great, to make them happier, to make their lives easier. Tell them about your products and services. Tell them about your triumphs and sometimes even your failures. Build a relationship with your customers.
Customers expect more from business on the web. They want statements online, not just in the mail (though paper is sometimes still preferred). They want faster, clearer answers to their questions. They want to be able to do business with you before or after work and on the weekends – when it’s convenient for them. Making the move into e-commerce can put a lot more pressure on a business as they try to provide a high level of customer service. If you let people down you may lose them as a customer forever. However, if you win them over with your service they can be loyal, and if your communication is frequent and effective you may be able to retain them for years to come.
- Under-promise, over-deliver – Set strict terms on your site for hours, return policies, shipping, and other terms of service. Then, once the customer has agreed to do business by those rules, break them occasionally in favor of the customer. Take back a product after 35 days instead of 30. Offer them free shipping on an item. Throw in a free gift and a thank you note. Do more than you promise or they expect. It will win you loyalty an admiration.
- Be true to your word – the IRS holds you responsible for mistakes on your tax return, even if the mistake is based on their bad advice. Everyone hates the IRS. Don’t be like the IRS. If you tell a customer you’ll do something for them or give them a deal, stand by it so long as you can absorb the loss. Sometimes this will hurt, but it will also make the customer respect you for taking a hit and standing by what you told them. If you accidentally tell them shipping is free on their order, then ship it free, even if it was supposed to be $30. Just make sure you correct the mistake and don’t make a habit of telling customers the wrong thing.
Getting Noticed and Fitting In
Businesses have a chance to be found online in ways that they could never do offline. Your website can be viewed by people in India, America, Brazil, and the UK all at the same time. You can be linked to by other sites and found in search engines. All you have to do is put something useful on your site. Relevant information on your products and services. This can be a great supplement to your traditional marketing efforts in print, radio, TV, billboards, and other media. Create a focused strategy for getting noticed online and stick with it just like you would any other marketing campaign.
E-commerce sites are part of a global marketplace. You may compete with companies from Prague, London, Bangalore, Kansas City, and Chicago instead of the one down the block. You need to make a commitment to constant improvement, innovation, and quality. Your site should always look to beat the competition by being simpler, prettier, easier to navigate, and offering better products and services. This takes time, hard work, money, and commitment to ongoing improvement. The Web changes quickly and often so you can’t build it, forget it, and hope to succeed in the online marketplace.