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Monday, October 20, 2003

All you need to become an e-business is a $20 domain name, a decent computer and an e-mail address, right?

Well, not exactly. E-commerce success depends on many factors -- your technology, marketing, customer relations. And, of course, your products or services.

Before your small or medium-sized business enters into the world of e-business, it's wise to educate yourself.

Part of your required research, experts suggest, is asking e-business veterans what insight and advice they'd offer:

Tip 1: Be realistic, assume nothing

He's not quite saying you should start with an empty tank, but the head of a Toronto company that bills itself as Canada's "e-dealer" does suggest driving in the slow lane to start.

"For a lot of e-business startups, expectations are often too high," says Barry Shafran, president and chief executive officer of cars4U Ltd., which sells and leases cars on-line through cars4u.com.

"Most people don't really understand the breadth of the costs involved," he adds. "If you really want to transact business, it's not enough to design your Web site. There are a number of software platforms and processes you have to go through to get it functioning."

Much as a physics teacher would say, Shafran warns e-business wannabes to assume nothing.

"Assume that you do not have a process in place to fulfill e-business orders efficiently -- and that your current processes are inadequate," he says.

That may sound like some tough love, but it's better to face the harsh reality before making an on-line faux pas.

"There's a tendency, especially in the small-business environment, to have the 'if you build it, they will come' predisposition," Shafran says. "[Business people] browse the Internet all the time, but they don't understand key wording, meta-tagging, search-engine submissions and marketing on-line.

"They think, 'How do I build it?' but not 'How do I get it found?' "

Tip 2: Carve your own niche

Perhaps there's no better example of that than the Soapstone Artists of Sanikiluaq, an on-line company that sells soapstone carvings made by artists in an isolated Nunavut community of 850 people.

"Research your market and find your own niche," says Robert McLean, the company's manager and brains behind soapstoneartists.com.

"You have to know your product, determine what makes it different from others. Then, do some homework and figure out who is likely to buy your product," he explains.

"Now, the hard part -- put your product in places where those people are going to be looking on-line, and let people know what your niche is."

Tip 3: Three clicks

Yes, even Web surfers who want to travel halfway around the world aren't willing to embark on an arduous on-line journey.

The president of on-line travel agency itravel2000.com acknowledges that it sounds ironic, but it's an important point to remember.

"Never make a consumer have to drill through more than three pages to get to the base information they are looking for," Jonathan Carroll advises.

"Time is precious. Consumers want answers immediately. They're not willing to wait -- nor should they have to," he says. "When you go on-line as an e-business, it opens your company to the world.

"You've got to make it easy and simple. When you confuse the customer, you lose the customer."

Tip 4: Follow up

Consumer satisfaction isn't in the bag, warns the head of a Vancouver grocery store that lets patrons order on-line.

"When we have a new customer, we phone or e-mail them to see if everything was okay, to see if they had any problems -- and ask them what we could do to improve our service," says Cori Bonina, president of Stong's Market and its Web site, stongs.com.

"People need to know there is a human face behind the computer that will give their order the attention it deserves."

Good word of mouth can help to make an e-business successful by winning new customers and seeing old ones return. But those bad references can just as easily become damaging to an e-business's reputation.

"For every complaint you get, there are maybe 10 people out there who just don't bother to complain -- but they might tell their friends about it," Bonina notes.

"So you've got one little problem that you could have tried to rectify if you'd known about it. Now, it may a huge problem."

Tip 5: Update, update, update

Sure, sex sells. But even the people behind a popular sex toy, book and video Web site have to do some, ah, hands-on refreshing now and then.

"It's like when you and your staff go around and clean the store, freshen everything up," says Cory Silverberg, one of the owners of the Come As You Are store in Toronto.

Run by a co-operative, the shop's Web site at comeasyouare.com is a no-fuss, uncluttered, yet colourful e-business storefront. Its "what's new" section is frequently updated with information on new products, coming workshops and reviews.

"You want to create the sense that your site is a place where something is happening," Silverberg says.

"But keep it simple and make it easy for people. Don't think that some flashing toasters are going to help sell something."

Tip 6: "Be responsive, be accurate and be fair"

Ian Landy, president and chief operating officer of Henry's camera store chain, has three tips in one, but because a picture is worth a thousand words, we'll let it slide.

His advice, offered after five years of watching the company's henrys.com Web site grow, is a nice snapshot of some smart ethics for e-businesses and bricks-and-mortar shops alike.

"E-mail is the same as a ringing telephone or a customer sitting in front of you," Landy advises. "When you've received a customer's e-mail, it can't sit in your inbox. You do have to address their queries as quickly as possible."

Be accurate, he cautions, when it comes to product specifications, promises of performance and guarantees. You have to know what you're talking about when responding to customer inquiries.

Be fair, Landy advises, when it comes to pricing, too.

"I know many retailers have dual pricing models -- an Internet pricing model and bricks-and-mortar pricing. I find that wrong. I never bought the 'We don't have the overhead' line. Of course you have overhead in e-business.

"Be fair with your pricing model. Be fair with customers if you've shipped the wrong product. Be fair in your approach to business."

E-business tips you can use

Be realistic, assume nothing

Carve your own niche

No more than three clicks

Follow up

Update, update, update

Be responsive, be accurate and be fair

© The Globe and Mail