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Press Release: Intertech Software's president, Tom Salonek, featured in Minnesota Business Magazine explains how to make the most of electronic business.



Competitive e-Vantage: Making the most of electronic commerce as originally printed in Minnesota Business magazine

Not all e-commerce activities are created equal. Consider the difference between basic brochureware on the web and a sophisticated business to business (B2B) application that streamlines a company’s supply chain over the internet. But no matter where your organization falls on the e-commerce continuum, there are practical considerations to make sure you’re maximizing your company’s Net investment.

Getting Started

Embarrassed to admit you’re just starting an e-business or e-commerce initiative? Don’t be…you’re far from alone. During the past few years Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Y2K projects drained a lot of money and resources away from e-business initiatives at many organizations. But now that you’re ready to roll up your sleeves, take the time to ensure that you’re focusing your efforts on the right group of customers. The 80/20 rule (i.e., 80% of your business comes from 20% of your customers) definitely applies to e-business solutions.

Do you know which customers drive your business? If not, do you know how to find out? In the airline business—no surprise here—it’s the frequent business flyer. Author and researcher Patricia Seybold in her book Customers.com describes how American Airlines’ early e-business initiatives focused exclusively on this core group of customers.

Timing is another issue for launching e-business initiatives. It can be tempting to focus on getting it done quickly, often at the expense of getting it done right. Sometimes a dual-track approach works best. Consider the case of Dell and gigabuys.com. When Dell launched gigabuys.com, a computer peripherals Web site, they used a dual approach. One group, “the sprinters”, was commissioned to get the commerce site up-and-running as soon as possible. For this group, anything was legal—stealing code from dell.com and taking technology shortcuts were ok as long as it resulted in a quicker launch.

A larger group, “the marathoners”, simultaneously was charged with building an integrated, scalable, and long-term solution. The sprinters had their site up within three months. Feedback was solicited from the sprinter’s version of the site, buying patterns were observed, and this information was fed to the marathoner’s initiative. When the marathoners finished the race, they did so with an enterprise solution based on live customer feedback.

Remember the phrase, “If you build it, they will come”? Catchy phrase, but unfortunately it only applies to mythical baseball fields in movies. In reality, if you build an e-commerce site, you’ll need to communicate its existence to your customers. Let them know—early and often—that there is a new way to place orders, check route delivery, troubleshoot their own problems, or whatever else your site can handle.

Half-Way Home

If your e-business initiative is in place, you’re well on your way. But before you focus your attention elsewhere, make sure your site allows e-mail or Web-based forms to solicit feedback. Usage software also can track customer’s behavior on your Web site. Live customer feedbac combined with site analysis can help streamline how you work with your customers.

Does your system behave differently based on the system user? If your system serves multiple people in a company—procurement managers, order processing clerks, and product users, does your system look, feel, and function differently based on each of these user groups? By customizing the interface based on the user, you can simplify how they do their work. Consumer sites like yahoo.com let customers create a custom version of the site based on their preferences (check it out at yahoo.com by clicking the “My” button).

Another concern at this point in the e-commerce cycle is how much assurance you give your customers. How does your site respond to customers when they place and order or issue a service request? Successful sites, such as Amazon.com, are masters at reassurance. Place an order at Amazon.com, and within a minute or two you’ll receive an e-mail confirming the order. That’s reassuring, especially if you’ve just ordered a birthday present for your spouse with no time to spare. With today’s e-mail systems, an auto-respond e-mail is a configuration option—not custom programming. This is a simple, yet powerful feature that many business sites fail to maximize.

Been-There-Done-That

If your site has been in existence for a while, guard against apathy. To keep a site fresh, it needs to change, particularly if you are serving a consumer market. When was the last time you read the same Sunday sports section for an entire week? Some may argue changing the site violates good branding and could cause customer confusion.

I couldn’t agree less.

Think of Coke—one of the strongest brands in the world. Remember, “Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing?” Amazingly, Coke has changed their slogan nearly 14 times since the “real thing” slogan was in use a decade ago.

Make your site sticky. At its core, stickiness is about having customers want to use your business. Amazon does this when you setup your OneClick settings. By taking the time to put in your information, you are less likely to leave Amazon when the Barnes and Noble $5 coupon arrives in the mail.

In the business-to-business world, FedEx realized technology could be used to create stickiness years ago when it created online tracking with a dial-up BBS version of order tracking. Information technology can help build stronger ties to your customers. While the application will vary depending on your industry, information technology—systems that your customers use to find information, place orders, etc.—can build virtual barriers to entry.

Finally, if you’re sitting on top of a successful business and mature e-business system, re-evaluate your business model. The Internet is enabling entirely new ways of doing things—from priceline.com creating an entirely new way to pay for products or by letting you “name your own price”—to MP3, the digital music standard, which is on the cusp of revolutionizing the music business. The potential is breathtaking, but only for those with enough vision and determination to enter the race.

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