Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Grow Your Online Presence

Grow Your Online Presence
By Summit Software Systems

A Simple Guide for Small Businesses

A good e-commerce plan can immediately improve your sales and marketing efforts. Whether you’re a neighborhood pizza shop or a home-based consultant, you can expand your reach to a national or even international base of potential customers. Indeed, creating and sustaining an online presence can help small businesses level the playing field. On the Internet, even the smallest online retailer can be as attractive and as functional as the largest big box store.

Although you may be a little intimidated by the thought of it, moving a business online doesn't have to be an overwhelming and daunting task. There are several solutions and services that make it a fairly seamless process. Below we’ll take you through some common questions and necessary tasks that you’ll need to consider if you want to grow your online presence.

Six Key Questions

1.       What will you offer online?

At first glance, your products may not appear conducive to online sales. Businesses like movie theaters, bakeries, bowling alleys and utility companies either require the customer to be on-site or offer a product that is largely intangible. But even for those types of businesses, customers have come to expect an online presence. If you can’t sell your actual product online, you can certainly sell tickets or offer discounts. Moreover, by showing online images, examples, demos and videos of your products and services, you can increase demand for your offerings. Whatever business you are in, you can offer something online. You just need to determine what that is.
2.       What are the required resources?

Internet businesses need to operate full time, so you must seriously and realistically consider how much help you will need. Below are some common options that many small businesses have employed to implement the online aspect of their business:

Hiring a full-time Web Manager. This person would be solely dedicated solely to Web management and operations.

Hiring consultants. Consultants or temporary employees can help set up your online business. This way you only have to bring them back on an as-needed basis.

Outsourcing. Many small businesses outsource development, design and hosting of their Web site and rely on an outside organization to keep it up to date and to manage growth.

Using “packaged” solutions. There are many "e-commerce in a box" solutions that will help you quickly and easily set up an e-commerce site. These products typically charge a monthly fee (around $25) and provide an online store with virtual shopping carts (locations where shoppers electronically place the items they want to buy). They also include online catalogs, customized product pages, tools that help merchants list their products and services on online auction and shopping sites, secure online payment options, discount coupons for customers, and technical support.

3.       What will your customer service policy look like?

Whether they’re at your actual store or online, customers expect to be able to contact a company with questions, special requests or problems. Make sure you place your contact information in a prominent and visible place on your site, so that customers with inquiries can easily contact you. Also, be sure to state how long it will take for you to reply to their message.

 4.  How will you process transactions?

To accept credit cards online, a small-business owner must first apply for a bank merchant account and then find a way to process transactions. At a brick-and-mortar store, the processing takes place when a card is swiped through the card reader. At an online store, the processing is done when a shopper types in the credit card information, which is then verified by a merchant account processor.

Merchant accounts may have drawbacks for some small-business owners, however. Most charge set-up, monthly and per-transaction fees. Additional fees may also be involved if a business owner has a pre-existing account for a physical store, and wants to convert that account to accept payments online. Moreover, some banks won't approve small online businesses for merchant accounts, considering them high-risk operations.

It may take 30 days or more for a merchant account to be approved and the integration process can be burdensome for business owners to do it themselves. Fortunately, the growth of online sales has given rise to an entire industry of merchant service bureaus that will grant a merchant account and everything else needed to accept online payments.

If you don’t have access to a merchant account or the fees are just too high, one solution is an online payment service, like PayPal. PayPal allows businesses to accept credit-card transactions and payments safely and conveniently. It also allows buyers to send payments directly from a bank account.

 5. How will you ensure transaction security?

If you want customers to make purchases from your online store, you must make them feel secure. The good news is that you don’t have to be information technology security experts to have a secure site.

There are services in this space that bring together all the security measures that an online small business needs to have in place. PayPal enables businesses to set up a Website that accepts credit cards without seeing or having to store the account numbers of its customers. This makes buyers feel even safer because they don't have to share their personal or financial information online. Gateway services like, CyberSource or Chase Paymentech Solutions will also handle credit card and electronic check payments securely.

 6. How will you ensure privacy?

Consumers' fears of identity theft and the aggravation over spam make privacy policies essential for online businesses. Customers expect merchants to boldly exhibit their privacy policies on their stores' sites, with links from the catalog pages and the shopping cart.

A privacy policy should describe how data, such as the customer's personal contact information and financial details, is collected and used. Consumers should be given the opportunity to opt out of having their information sold or distributed and of receiving e-mail newsletters or other company communications.

Starting an online store may seem like a daunting challenge, but the reality is it's never been easier. Today, many of the processes of moving a business online have become standardized and even automated. So, what are you waiting for? Get started today!

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