Online Business is Still Business

Online Business is Still Business

Business success depends on meeting customer expectations. Prices should be fair, hours should be reasonable, employees should be helpful. The list of standard, expected services is changing. The next generation of buyers does everything online, from paying taxes to ordering pizza. They are going to expect the same open access in business-to-business interactions. Dealers must have effective online resources to be relevant to these buyers.

Notice I said “dealers need online resources” not “dealers need websites.” Most businesses have some kind of website, but these are often little more than marketing brochures. Customers aren’t looking for Company History. They want to check pricing, get order updates, and complete transactions. They want tools to manage their accounts, and they will choose businesses that offer self-service resources.

A good business-to-business website is actually an extension of the sales and customer support teams, not the IT department. Think of it as a service first and a website second. Traditional discussions about demand, opportunity, and risk must come before any mention of servers and software. Most executives and managers are comfortable with basic SWOT analysis regardless of their technical expertise. The following points outline a sort of discovery process for this discussion.

List your objectives. Determine what your company needs in order to grow (e.g. increase inventory turns and upsells) then find ways to meet those needs through a website (e.g. advertise sales on older items and use “suggested products” features). Don’t let overzealous programmers lose sight of the business goals. You need to provide a dependable resource, not set new benchmarks for graphic design.

Identify the standards. Look at competitor sites to identify common functions customers expect. If most businesses list available inventory, then your portal should do the same. Once you know the industry standards, think of ways to exceed expectations. Having the first site that lets customers view past invoices or submit their own orders could be a great competitive advantage.

Do your research. Talk to people you know and trust. Plenty of consultants will want to give advice. A better approach is to speak with peers and customers first. Contact friends in the industry who have or who are launching their own websites. Ask what worked, what surprised them, and what they would do differently.

Create a timeline. You don’t have to launch an all-in-one site right away. Slowly adding functions allows time to identify and resolve issues. Announcing new features as they are added also reminds customers about the portal. Set a timeline for rolling out each phase. Be patient: it could take a couple years to fully implement the plan. Work with a developer that understands the long-term objective.

Check compatibility. A business site should compliment existing infrastructure. For instance, it should work well with your ERP system and automatically display changes to pricing and inventory. Standalone sites can mean double-keying price file updates and adding new products to multiple databases. A self-service portal should help the sales teams, not create more work for them. Ask your ERP provider for a list of compatible platforms and suggested partners.

Stay involved. It’s tempting to just hand the site off to the IT department, but this project is too important to delegate. Customer portals are revenue generating, cost reducing operations. You must take an active role. Treat the website team like a sales team. Regularly meet with them to discuss expectations, solve roadblocks, set goals, and reward success. If the discussion starts to get too technical, bring it back to business objectives: serving customers and growing sales.

Online business should not be a new frontier. It requires familiar principles of service: meet expectations and satisfy needs. Honoring those values in your online operation will keep customers happy and help your business prosper.

This article was originally written for Hardwood Matters, the official publication of the National Hardwood Lumber Association, and published in May, 2014 (Issue 145).