January 6, 2010

Spotlight Article: Building a Web-Based Storefront

By Kevin Roach, Executive Vice President, Activant Solutions Inc.

You’ve decided you want to offer your customers the convenience of an integrated Web-based storefront. All you need to do is select who will build and host your new site. While this may seem like a simple decision, in reality it is as important as choosing your enterprise software solution.

Why You Need a Professional

When it comes time to hire someone to create your Web site, think carefully. These days, it seems like everyone knows someone who can design an attractive Web page. But, as they say, looks can be deceiving. Unless the technology behind the design can provide you with all the functionality – and security – you want to offer your customers, you could be headed for trouble.

Your Web site is an outward extension of your organization and part of your business system. A well thought out interface and integration to your back end business system is essential. Anything less could not only chase customers away from your site, but your business entirely. Choose a designer that knows your business as well as distribution in general, and has the ability to develop the functionality that gives your customers the information they need in an expedient and secure manner.

Make sure whoever you choose to develop your site will be there for you as your business changes. Successful Web sites are not static. You must refresh the content as you expand product lines, update pricing, etc. The relationship you have with your Web site developer will need to last as long as you plan to offer the site. You want a partner who views your site as more than a hobby or side job. You want a dedicated professional with a vested interest in the success of your site.

Deciding What Goes Online

You know you want to offer your customers online access to your product catalog, but what else? A well-planned Web site can do a lot more for your business than you might initially expect.

Think about how much time your customer service representatives spend on the phone answering customers’ questions. Customers want to know the status of orders, the amount of their last invoice, what they ordered six months ago, and so much more. By providing this information online, in a secure setting, you can free your staff to focus on developing new business and allow your customers to save time by eliminating having to make phone calls for information they now have at their fingertips.

Your customers will also benefit from being able to create favorites lists, search by several different criteria, and receive suggestions for go-together items for products they add to their shopping cart.

Also, customers with special pricing programs with you will expect to get that same pricing whether they logon to your site or call your sales reps. If you only post standardized pricing on your Web site, customers who get price breaks won’t want to use it.

Integration

To offer your customers an effective Web site, you need one that is fully integrated with your enterprise software solution.

The reason is simple: At minimum, you want a site that enables your customers to place orders online. Unless your Web site is tied directly to your inventory management solution, your customers won’t be able to trust that you actually have in stock what your site says you do. After getting burned enough times, they are going to stop using your site and go back to calling in for service.

If you take the next step and offer customers account information online, that information has to be real-time. Customers making business decisions based on the data you provide online expect that information to be in real time. Out-of-date invoices or order status records will cause confusion and frustration.

Of course, you could offer all of this without integrating your Web site with your enterprise software solution, but then you will need to commit additional staff and resources to constantly re-key information and update your Web site. Not only is this time-consuming, but it also leads to costly errors from accidental typos. In essence you would be offering a glorified fax machine.

Hosting

In addition to choosing someone to develop your Web site, you also need to choose a technology provider to host it.

Don’t assume all Web hosting services are the same. Many cannot guarantee backup support if your site goes down. You want a host who will be there for you the same amount of time your site is open to your customers: 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Ideally, your design firm and host company should be one and the same. This ensures that your Web site is designed to the correct technology specifications. Also, any upgrades to the technology will not interfere with the functionality of your site.

If You Build It, Will They Come?

Just because you build a Web site, doesn’t mean your customers will flock to it. You’re giving them a new tool to do business with you and they need to learn how to use it to their advantage.

The most effective introductions of Web-based storefronts employ an inside-out strategy. Start by searching your employees the value the Web site can bring to customers. Encourage them to spread the word and invite customers to visit the site.

If you have a front counter, hold an open house for your customers to come in and see live demonstrations of your site. Have your remote salespeople demo the site at customers’ locations and your service representatives incorporate mentioning the site into their phone conversations with customers.

When it comes to educating your customers, take the time to explain and demonstrate the value the site provides. Show your customers that your Web-based storefront is another value-added service you provide.

To encourage use, give special discounts to customers who place orders via your Web site or offer higher commissions to salespeople whose regular customers use the site to check invoices.

Keep the URL in front of customers. Make sure to include it on all printed documents – including letters, invoices, and purchase orders. Post fliers in your pick up area and use mail, fax, and e-mail campaigns to promote the site.

Most of all, don’t forget to include the URL in all of your traditional marketing campaigns. Your Web site is an extension of your business and should be featured as a value-added service only you can provide.

The benefits a well-built Web site can bring your business are many, not the least of which are increased sales, expanded geographic reach, and improved customer service.

Kevin Roach, executive vice president and general management of Activant Solutions Inc., is an expert on wholesale distribution. Find out more at distribution.activant.com; distribution@activant.com; 1-800-776-7438, press 1.

About Activant:

Activant Solutions Inc. is a leading technology provider of business management solutions serving distributors and SMB retailers. Activant provides customers with industry-specific software, professional services, content, supply chain connectivity, and analytics.

Over 30,000 customer locations use Activant products to manage their day-to-day operations. Activant’s systems are designed to help customers increase sales, boost productivity, operate more cost-efficiently, improve inventory turns and enhance trading partner relationships. Headquartered in Livermore, California, Activant has operations in Texas, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah, Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom. For more information, please visit www.activant.com.  

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