Post global economic slowdown, the focus of consumers has shifted from cheap to cheap and good. Thus the quality of a product has become as important as the price. The modern, frugal and more empowered customer demands the product to be tailored to his/her exact needs and wants; the quality of the product to be high; the price of the product to be competitive; turnaround times to be very short; and superior customer service at all levels. Given these demands, the traditional shop windows are struggling to satisfy the market while maintaining the bottom line hindered by compounding overheads. As seen in many economies which have gone through the recession, many business owners, especially in SMEs, have no other choice but to close shop. However, taking into consideration the advances in technology a viable alternative is to take the operation online.
So why take your business online?
To reach a wider market
With business being conducted virtually over the internet, geographical barriers become insignificant. Also since the WWW is an open marketplace everyone has an equal opportunity at attracting business.
To reduce overheads and real estate costs
A virtual setup reduces the amount of physical space you would require to run your business. Anyone can startup a company form their garage as many .com startups did back in the day. This holds true even today. Also, as most of the operations are streamlined with proven processes defined for e-businesses, the layers of “fat” within an organization can be trimmed down to a barebones. This results in the reduction of overheads on each front.
To increase productivity (open 24×7)
Traditionally your shop window would be closed after dark or during weekends. However your online shop window would be available to the consumer at any time anywhere.
To re-engineer processes
The modern day market dictates the evolution of processes on an ongoing basis. However some businesses find this constant change difficult to mange or cope with due to the rigid processes put in place. Taking your business online is one way of changing age old processes and putting in more flexible ones which are sensitive to market change. Furthermore, these processes can be evolved at a much faster pace.
As an HR strategy
One of the keys to surviving the current market is to find the best employees. As the need for streamlined operations become more urgent, the hunt for the most efficient and effective staff is on. Traditionally you would be handicapped as your staff would most probably be located close to your operation. However this is overcome in the virtual environment as the best talent form all over the world can work for you as virtual employees with minimum change to existing processes. It could also be cheaper to hire someone form a different part of the world compared to hiring from your own backyard.
Many companies and businesses were forced to wrap up their operations during the economic slowdown. However some companies opted to reduce their overheads, streamline their operations and go online. Taking a business online and operating out of a smaller office would definitely be one option to consider before closing down.
After considering all of the points mentioned above, it goes without saying that taking a business online offers a lot of flexibility with respect to operations, sales and marketing.
How can you take your business online? The 9 Steps…
Step 1: Take control of your website
Things are not what they used to be. Customers just don’t walk in the door and look for what you have. No one has the time to do that anymore given the large number of choices available in a highly competitive market. Given this modern scenario, your website essentially becomes your shop window. The better you are at providing information in an attractive way on your website, the more customers you can expect to walk in the door. In order to do this you need to first take control of your website:
- Don’t be slaves to service providers!
- Update your website with what you want when you want.
- Get a product out to the market instantly.
- Change the look and feel of your website to reflect marketing strategy.
- Write your own content, you know your customer best!
- Always insist on a Content Management System (CMS) driven website. If you can write a letter on MS Word you can maintain your own website using a CMS…
Step 2: Formulate a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Strategy
Now that you have taken control of your website and made it as up-to-date and as attractive as you can, you need to let the world know about your hard work. i.e. you need to tell the search engines such as Google and Yahoo! what you are selling and why your stuff is better than the competition. In essence, you need to climb the Google ladder (Google is just one ladder. You will need to climb at least a few others to get up there):
- Get the keywords right! If you are selling Toys in Malaysia, a crude example would be “Toys” – Low probability of getting hits; “Toys in Malaysia” – Better probability; “Toys in Penang” – Even better; “Soft toys in Penang” – Almost the best.
- The first 20% of your website determines 80% of your Search Engine Ranking. i.e. use your web real estate wisely.
Step 3: Build a Search Engine Marketing (SEM) Strategy
Having implemented a proper SEO strategy, you would now see an improvement in the amount of traffic you receive on your website. You might even be surprised with the occasional online enquiry or Facebook mention. However, stopping at this point will leave you disappointing pretty soon because natural or organic SEO can only do so much in the world of online business. As with anything you need to allocate some money for a more proactive SEM strategy:
- Set down a monthly budget for SEM strategy.
- Spread your budget over several key search engines and techniques such as sponsored ads, adwords and pay-per-click.
- Buy sponsored banners and results.
- Get into Google/Yahoo map search.
Step 4: Sell Your Stuff Online
If you have thought through your SEM strategy, you should be receiving quite a number of potential customers on your website. Some of them may walk into your shop. However, many others would want to buy online. As a business owner you should be fully aware of the ABC – “Always Be Closing“. So why not close the deal on the website itself before the customer moves onto the competition? It’s high time you got yourself your own shopping cart:
- Showcase and sell products 24×7.
- Sell in your sleep (process automation).
- Gather customer information and buying trends.
- Online discounts, special offers, seasonal offers etc.
- Exclusive deals for online customers.
- Incorporate into existing website.
Step 5: Start Accepting Payments Online
There are two ways you can accept payments through your website. The first is to DIY using the payment features of the shopping cart. However, this is not recommended as you will be liable for confidential customer information. The second way is to use a service provider such as Pay Pal to handle all the payment transactions. Many of these service providers are now very affordable. By partnering up you will be able to:
- Integrate online payments seamlessly into your shopping cart.
- Accept credit cards and increase sales.
- Run your operation with no monthly, start-up, or cancellation fees – and no annual commitment (most of the time).
- Enable international customers to pay using their local payment methods.
- Accepts many currencies.
- Avoid Privacy and Security issues.
Step 6: Using the Cloud to Integrate Processes
With a growing online business you will have more complex operations to manage. These will range from finances to supply chains to sales. To streamline all these processes certain software systems such as ERP will need to be implemented. One option is to get an ERP tailored to your business. Another is to harness the power of the cloud with concepts such as Software as a Service (SaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS):
- No infrastructure cost.
- Access from anywhere.
- Pre-packaged modules (sales, finance, HR etc.).
- Easy expansion.
- Compatibility with existing ERP/MRP/CRM packages.
Step 7: Virtual Collaboration or Getting Global Experts at Local Rates
By this time you would be the owner of a flourishing online business. As with any successful business you will need to continue expanding and innovating to continue the success. This might be the time when you would seriously need expertise. However, expertise are not cheap. Furthermore, if you need to import expertise it would be quite costly and inefficient. A potential solution to your need for expertise would be to source it on the web. Through virtual collaboration you have access to a global pool of expertise who could work with your in-house teams to take your business to the next level:
- Hire the best from all over the world.
- Pay local rates.
- Reduce overheads.
- Run a 24×7 operation (you sleep they work).
- Reduce your carbon footprint.
Step 8: Ride the Facebook wave
Facebook has over one billion potential customers. Need I say more?
Step 9: Go Mobile
Now that you have established a successful online business, its time to go mobile. An exponentially increasing number of consumers use their mobile devices to shop. Developing a tailored mobile app for your online business which allows customers to instantly view your stuff and buy them would radically increase your sales. I will talk about how to create your own mobile app for the Android platform in a later post.