Succeeding with a web business

Whether you choose to make the leap to building an online business or not, you will be competing against web-based businesses from this time forward.

A big advantage of doing business on the Internet today is that it’s possible for a small business to present a public face that is every bit as professional looking and full-featured as even the largest businesses.  Web designers focusing on small business customers can set up e-commerce storefronts for a very small amount of money compared to what it would cost to build a competitive, high profile store in the real world. This includes online store creation, secure transaction processing, and easy-to-use tools to manage products, promotions and inventory.

Even though it’s possible (maybe) for a couple of large online businesses to make a profit by selling books, software or consumer electronics at bare-bones prices, it's not too likely you'll be one of them. These pioneering companies may be large but they're not currently profitable. If they do end up succeeding it will be because they took enormous risks very early in the evolution of the Internet and got lucky. There’s only so much luck to go around.

Your most likely road to success will come from finding a niche that you can serve better than the online superstores. The Amazons and Wal-Marts of the world will almost always be able to offer lower prices than your small business.  But, with a little effort, you can offer more personalized (and therefore better) service. Also, because the cost overhead of a web store can be lower than for a physical storefront, you should be able to offer reasonably competitive prices.

Small businesses do best when they specialize in products in a particular niche, like handcrafted furniture or specialty kitchenware, and then offer their customers excellent products, values, and selection. You must also be willing to give the same commitment to your web store as you would to opening a new location in the physical world. If you're going to build it, then build it right if you want them to come.

You may have already thought about some of the more obvious items that are important to your success: choosing a good domain name, identifying a reliable web host and finding a designer for your web site. If you’re serious about building a profitable e-business, though, it’s critical to spend some time thinking hard about customer service. Customer service is crucial to building a successful e-business.

What are your customers really looking for? Value, of course! For instance, what value are they going to get out of shopping and purchasing at your store and will it be a pleasant or frustrating experience? Like customers everywhere, they’re simply shopping for the best deal.

The best deal isn’t necessarily the one with the lowest price (though certainly for some shoppers and some items it is). Trust and convenience are also ingredients that are part of the best deal. How much frustration will your customer have to go through to get your product or service?  Many business web sites are so poorly designed that the irritation factor -- dealing with shipping problems, lack of trust, or ugly, confusing interfaces -- outweigh even the benefits of low price. The mistake that these businesses make is to believe that for almost no commitment and little money, the Internet can become an almost magic source of income for them. If your online business can offer good service, convenient shopping and an emotional connection with your visitors, you can succeed even when you don’t have the lowest price.


The web is a remarkable convenience in many ways. One of these is as a worldwide shopping catalog. Your customer doesn't have to leave her home; she can look at a wide variety of products, and browse shops anywhere. To convince her to make a purchase in your store you need to make it easy to find what she wants, provide answers for any questions that she may have, and make the purchase process simple and direct when she's ready to buy.

Online ordering takes advantage of the customer's spur-of-the-moment desire to buy. If your web store requires him to complete his order offline, his enthusiasm may cool or he may become distracted and never follow through on the order.

An online shopping cart system makes your site really convenient for your customers. The shopper can use it to remember her selections as she shops.  When she’s ready to check out, it lets her enter the shipping address and credit card information for her order, calculates tax and shipping, and displays a receipt for her to print. Sure, this technology costs a bit to set up initially, but you'd need a cash register and store space if you set up shop in the local mall, wouldn't you? While shopping in web stores is probably more like catalog shopping than physical store shopping, it can be more convenient than either one.

Here are some convenience features that are often found in successful web stores:

Attractive and professional site design

  • Clean, straightforward site organization
  • Careful use of graphics to avoid long delays
  • Easy-to-find store policies – shipping costs, returns, security, privacy, contact info

Easy and informative shopping

  • Products catalog – browsable and searchable
  • Purchasing guides
  • Product reviews and comparisons
  • Product accessories available

Easy buying

  • Competitive prices
  • Helpful suggestions for add-ons to the order
  • Shipping options with a variety of speeds and costs
  • Online payment (including credit cards)
  • Unconditional returns

Easy to get answers to questions

  • E-mail
  • Phone numbers
  • Regular mail address
  • FAQ (a list of Frequently Asked Questions with their answers)
  • Online forums
  • Online chat


  • Newsletter via e-mail
  • Cooperative promotions with partners and affiliates

All these conveniences make it easy for your customers to buy. However, before they spend their hard-earned cash, they need to trust you.

Building Trust

You need to gain your customers' confidence. After all, they certainly won’t do business with you if there’s even the slightest doubt that you won’t deliver their goods or services as expected.

Larger corporations can get trust by name recognition alone. A small business owner can begin the process of gaining their visitors’ trust by letting them get to know you better. How do you do that? Tell them about yourself. Write in an informal style, just as if you were chatting with them in your store. For example, you might explain how you and your partner have dreamed of making your specialty chai tea blends available to customers around the world. Tell them about your background, your business experience, and how you learned about numerous exotic chai tea blends when you were a Peace Corps volunteer in Bangladesh. The better your customers feel that they know you, the more connected they’ll feel to your store.

Honest descriptions and reviews of your product offerings not only help your shoppers make the choice that best suits their needs for quality and price, they also help build trust in your advice. When writing these it helps to imagine helping a customer in a physical store who’s trying to choose among various similar items in a store display.

Closely monitor and be responsive to questions sent by e-mail, fax, chat, and forums.  The quicker you’re able to respond to an e-mail question, the more confidence the customer will have that you’ll be there to help if there’s a problem with their order.

A photo might help a shopper feel that she knows you and you'll treat her right. Ask some satisfied customers to write a few lines about their experience doing business with you. Testimonials enable customers to see you as an honest, reliable person; they are the next best thing to word-of-mouth.

Online security

Unless your customer trusts the safety of his credit card purchase, he won't complete the transaction even if he trusts you. Will people trust the Internet enough to transmit their credit information over it?

The press has devoted a lot of ink to stories about credit card numbers being stolen over the Internet. In fact, not only is this extremely rare, but people take equivalent or worse chances with their credit cards all the time and think nothing of it — like handing it to a waiter in a restaurant, or giving the number over a cell phone.  It's not the reality that's important though, it's what your customers believe (or fear). If they don’t feel safe, they won't purchase from you over the Internet.

It's important that your site promote a feeling of safety and confidence. That's one of the reasons you should include an "About Our Company" web page that tells about your business, your experience in the field, your membership in various organizations, and perhaps a photo or two. Part of feeling secure is feeling like you know the people with whom you are doing business. A physical shop might display a Chamber of Commerce plaque or a symbol of the Better Business Bureau. Your web store should show the logos of organizations you belong to for the same reason — to inspire trust and confidence in your customers.

Providing full security for your web store is an important responsibility of your web site designer. This is one area where there can be an enormous difference between experienced, professional designers and inexpensive amateurs.

Over 90% of web surfers use modern browsers that support the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) standard according to statistics available from BrowserWatch and NetRatings. When these browsers connect to a web site that’s running an SSL server, all the information that’s sent back and forth during the online session is encrypted.

Can the code be broken? It’s theoretically possible, but it’s difficult and time consuming. A hacker with the skills and resources to do it won’t be trying to collect credit card numbers one at a time, he'll be trying to break into banks.

The shopping experience

Many visitors are just window-shopping and may or may not buy, depending on what they find. They are your impulse buyers and you need to appeal to their emotions and senses. For example, when Lands’ End describes a T-shirt it’s a Super-T with reinforced shoulders, smooth covered neck seam, twist-proof side seams and top-shelf dyes. They tell you that it’s pre-washed, virtually shrink-proof, and has heroic durability.  Their description certainly conveys the feeling of a heavy-duty shirt with quality construction. Not only does this make it much more appealing, but it also helps give you the feeling that you’ve held it in your own hands and felt the quality.

Since your customers can’t personally examine your products, you need to help them through colorful descriptions. Try not to get too carried away though, because some shoppers may be put off by an over-the-top description like “heroic durability”. Your descriptions must also reasonably reflect the actual product, or you’ll not only end up having to accept numerous returns, you’ll likely have permanently lost some customers.

Some shoppers may definitely be planning to buy but don't have a clear idea of what they're looking for. Perhaps they're looking for a gift. They might respond to recommendations or to one of the various kinds of sales promotions used in physical stores. Limited time sales, two-for-one offers, availability of special one-time-only products, free shipping, etc., all help to convince a shopper to buy now rather than later.  The web is a new environment and there are probably numerous new types of promotions that are possible.  Use your imagination!

Web shoppers are often careful consumers who want specs, product reviews, and how-tos before they’re ready to buy. For example, Home Depot’s web site is organized around providing do-it-yourself instructions on a whole range of home improvement projects.  While they don’t directly promote their products, many shoppers will choose to buy from Home Depot because they appreciate the help, the prices are reasonable, and it’s more convenient than having to become familiar with a new web site.  The information serves another purpose too.  Many of their visitors will bookmark the site on their favorites list for easy access to helpful information.  This will turn them into a permanent customer.

Some of your visitors aren’t planning to buy at all but are simply looking for a convenient way to get in touch with the company. You need to provide multiple options for contacting the organization (phone, e-mail, fax, regular mail, and maybe even live chat) and make the information easy to find.

As in a physical store, you'll need to anticipate your shopper's objections. Is he concerned you won't ship in time for his son’s graduation? Provide delivery time estimates and an overnight delivery option. Include a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page for questions that come up all the time.

In the end, your customers will purchase for a combination of three reasons: value, convenience, and trust.

The future of business on the web

People are buying online now (even at sites with poor security) because it is so convenient. Some web store owners report that they believe they would lose a large percentage of their sales if they had to rely on conventional ordering alone. Although it’s true that some customers may still prefer to complete a transaction by phone, fax, or regular mail (even on a secure web site), if you rely only on offline order completion you won’t connect with a great many potential customers.

We are at the threshold of a big increase in consumer confidence in online purchasing. Visa and MasterCard, supported by several of the large e-commerce software companies, have finalized the Secure Electronic Transaction (SET) specifications for the Internet. They allow your credit card number to be encrypted so that no one can read it — not you, not the merchant. Only the bank or merchant's credit card service gets the number.

Security will improve even more with a recent update to the Internet's low-level communication rules that are technically referred to as IPv6 (as in Internet Protocol version 6). These improvements make it possible to automatically protect web sites from the most common forms of attack by online vandals as well as more easily encrypt all Internet communications.

When the Internet service providers and web browser suppliers put those standards into service, we will see consumer confidence and purchases on the Internet grow dramatically, eventually resulting in a flood of online commerce. Now is the time to get positioned for it!