Ten steps to e-commerce heaven

Is your company planning to get online? Here's the eBusiness review 10-point guide to a successful roll-out. It's the least you...

Is your company planning to get online? Here's the eBusiness review 10-point guide to a successful roll-out. It's the least you need to know, say Danny Bradbury and John Gosler

Our 10 steps to e-commerce heaven...

Consult selected customers through surveys

This is a unique opportunity to develop a whole new sales channel from scratch. Take the opportunity to find out what your customers are looking for from an e-commerce site. What can you sell with it, and who can these products be sold to?

Define business objectives

What do you want out of the site? Measure this in terms of:

  • Is it for a business or consumer audience? This will affect the type of interface and back-end technology that you will build into it.
  • Evaluate potential return on investment. Can you come up with a figure that will justify the expenditure on front- and back-end design?
  • Do you want to expand an existing market or cut transaction costs? Or perhaps a combination of both?
  • Do you want to push into overseas markets? This is an excellent means for small companies to establish a presence further afield, as long as they have the logistical organisation to do so.
  • Is this a reactive or proactive move against competition? How advanced are they in this area? Looking at competitors' sites will give you tips on offering a unique business proposition. Do what they have done and go one better.
  • Scope the project

    Include the following and use it as a requirements definition if you decide to outsource the development of the site:

  • Deadline - be ambitious, but make sure you comply with business deadline requirements.
  • Budget - you must tie in your expenditure with your project's return on investment.
  • Resources - (including staff) do you have the expertise to develop this in-house? If not, will you recruit people to help you? Don't forget the boxes to run it on, and the database and Web server software necessary to make it work.
  • Reliability and performance of site - ideally, e-commerce sites should have some form of transactional fail-over, which could imply a clustered solution. Load balancing will also help to manage peaks in demand.
  • Integration with rest of business, including logistics - make sure that the rest of the business is able to back up what you're doing from an order processing and delivery point of view.
  • Do you recruit from outside? If so, do you use contractors or recruit permanent staff? Where do staff come from? Work with recruitment agencies. Also, what skills do you need? Think Java, HTML design, network and system maintenance, security and creative design. You will also need database skills, along with Web server expertise.

    Evaluate legacy systems

    How difficult are these to integrate with? What data needs to be passed between legacy systems and the front end? Consider whether data will be passed to and from legacy systems in real-time or on a batch basis. If you take the latter route, how often will it be transferred?

    Design the product

    Think about including something different on your site. What can be done to make it more attractive than the competition? Some sites that sell CDs have negotiated contracts with record publishers to run music clips, for example, while the innovative ones also offer personalised features that track your musical tastes and make suggestions. Also, think about potential variations in client access. Will people be accessing from Wap mobile phones/PDAs?

    Build the infrastructure

  • Internet service provider (ISP) - choose someone reliable with a direct link to the London Internet Exchange (Linx). Consider hosting the e-commerce site on their servers if you don't have the expertise in-house.
  • Bandwidth - you need to make sure that your internal local area network is up to the job if hosting the site in-house, and it's better to be too liberal than too cautious with your ISP link.
  • Storage - capacity plan your storage - don't run out of room for product and customer data.
  • Processing power - capacity plan processing power to ensure that it can cope with peaks in demand. People will quickly find another site if yours fails to respond.
  • Software - some of the applications you may have to select from include:

    • Database software
    • Application server/Web server software
    • Customer relationship management software
    • Clustering software
    • E-commerce/merchant services software
    • Credit card transaction clearing software
  • Pilot a prototype

    Try the system with a limited, trusted end-user base. Does it work? What are limitations? Take account of these and go back to step 6.

    Go live and brand

    Once the system meets customer needs, go live. Start branding the site using search engines, advertising, co-linking with other popular sites etc.

    Enhance the product

    Potential post roll-out enhancements include:

  • Customer relationship management application software/personalised marketing.
  • More products brought online.
  • Faster delivery.
  • Integration with other product vendors?
  • Marketing tie-ins with digital TV in the future?
  • Online payments (if not implemented already).
  • Read more on Business applications