Following October's SME Month, run in association with BT, we have assembled a panel of experts to answer questions sent in by small businesses. The SME strategy special will run throughout November.
Like many small companies, I have only ever published my basic company details on a static website. Now I am ready to develop the website to complete transactions and take customer orders. What is the best value-for-money approach? Will I be able to add other features in the future?
Learn as you build your website progressively
Mick Hegarty, IT general manager, BT Business
There are many examples of businesses that have done great things with their websites - and done them quickly.
Unfortunately, it is just as easy to find businesses that have wasted significant amounts of time and money and accomplished very little.
It is better to build your website progressively and learn as you do so. By "learning", this does not mean the technical issues, but rather discovering what works for your customers, what does not and why. This is not always as straightforward as you might imagine.
Fortunately, this step-by-step approach makes sense from a business perspective as well as a technical perspective. Having started with a basic web presence, it is relatively simple to move to an online catalogue so customers can learn more about your products or services.
The move into online trading is then quite straightforward. You can let customers tailor their own solutions and eventually you can offer your best customers their own bespoke pages. As you progress, be sure you gauge the success of your website either by monitoring hits or by getting direct feedback electronically.
There are many companies that offer a range of services in this area - from simple templates though to custom design and managed hosting. The key is to pick a partner that understands your needs, can bring best practice from the industry leaders and support your business as it grows.
That will free you to see what works for you, whether that is reaching new customers, increasing sales to existing customers, or improving the overall customer experience.
Get a tailored solution from a software and web designer
Peter Scargill, National IT chairman, Federation of Small Businesses
If you are seriously considering expanding your business via the internet and developing long-term solutions, you might want to spend money on consulting a software and web designer who will tailor a solution specifically to your purposes.
Often these designers are also small businesses and understand the needs of SMEs. Government business support services are not likely to offer the services required by employers to small businesses. Unless you are going online for the first time, it is unlikely that there will be any grants available.
E-security is of prime importance. Once you enter into online business, tailored solutions are often more reliable than off-the-shelf products and worth the initial investment.
First talk to your business internet service provider
John Coulthard, Head of small business, Microsoft UK
Turning your website into an online sales channel will require two main enhancements: the site will need to be able to take customer orders and process transactions. Your business ISP may offer cost-effective solutions in both these areas and should be your first port of call for help and advice. An ISP should be able to:
- Help you set up shopping basket functionality based on simple templates and shopping basket software
- Help you with credit card processing to handle transactions.
Although this is the cheapest way of building an e-commerce solution, the result will look similar to many other sites soit will be hard to differentiate your brand. Avoiding this will cost a little more - ask your ISP about designing a custom template. This makes use of the same basic technology, but gives you more flexibility and control over the look and feel of your proposition.
Expanding a website takes careful design and targeting
Trevor Lucas, Managing director, SME reseller TAL Computer Services
Expanding your website to allow customers to buy online may be one of the best moves you ever make. But a poorly constructed and managed website can do more harm than good. As with any marketing activity, you must think about your target market - there is little point in creating a multi-language site if you are trying to provide services to the local community.
The site must be stable, reliable and be able to cope with demand - the web works 24 hours a day and a site that crashes constantly will not present a good image.
Creating a successful e-commerce proposition need not be a complicated or difficult process. A number of software packages are designed to make it easier for you to get started and include a range of easy to use templates.
As your site grows, it will be possible to make some significant enhancements. For instance, you could extend its reach by covering different languages, but remember that the site would also need to take payments in different currencies.
Of course, you may want to take a more hands-on approach, and build the site from scratch yourself. Whatever you do, it is important you are realistic about the amount of support the site will need and the time and skills you can devote to it.
Identify the benefits to you and your customers
Stephen Benson, Business Link Hertfordshire's UK Online IT centre
To move your business from having a simple online presence to a more integrated e-business model represents a big challenge for a smaller company.
The world is your oyster, but is that what is best for the business? Trading online 24 hours a day, seven days a week across the globe is an intriguing proposition, but is that what you actually want?
Good planning is vital. The first step has to be a dispassionate review of your business, your customers, your markets and your services or products.
Once you have identified the benefits to you and, more importantly, to your customers, it is relatively straightforward to evolve an online business model. Once the back-end systems have been integrated into the online presence, this will provide an effective website experience for new or existing customers.
There are self-build products on the market, or you could join a trading portal where many businesses join together to share marketing costs and to share in exposure. The host company will build the site for you and charge a regular monthly fee while you remain online.
Web design companies are now plentiful. Seek a design company that understands your business and ask to see other work that matches your requirements. Typically they will offer an off-the-shelf solution as custom built service costs will be higher. However, if you view this as a important contributor to the growth of your business, it may well be worth the extra cost.
A basic principle of working with a reputable web design company is the provision of an edit facility which enables you to make changes and additions to your site so you can keep it fresh and up-to-date in real time.
Functionality must match existing business processes
Mike Lucas, Regional technology manager, Compuware
There are two keys to successfully adding functionality to your website as you go along. The first is to understand that any features and functions you add will have a knock-on effect to your business. Therefore, you need to make sure that the functionality in the website matches any existing business processes.
The second key is to keep it simple at the start by working with a partner or hosting company that understands your business and utilises open, standards-based technology. This will leave you free to add more functionality at a later stage.
A partner or hosting company will also offer you a range of site functionality that can match your existing business model, but also give a roadmap for how to enhance it in the future. You should look to work with a partner that can demonstrate experience and understanding of your business area by providing references that are pertinent to your sector.