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Developing Customers

Some suggestions and ideas for developing a virtual online community of customers for a virtual storefront Web site:

1. Set the right goals for the Web site store. Build a virtual community of satisfied customers. The revenue will follow.

2. Understand the buyers' shopping experience and create an appropriate environment for offering your products and services online.

3. Get to know customers better through online and offline feedback:

  • Word of mouth can be key to success.
  • Find ways to encourage customers to share with others what they have learned about your products and services. Help your customers by creating chat groups and facilitating online discussion.
  • Provide a good place to browse. Make it interesting, compelling and entertaining in the way you present your products or services.
  • Try to attract the people who like to browse your category. Link other sites that can send you potential customers.
  • A relatively small number of expert shoppers can have a large impact on your sales. Engage an expert in your field to host a chat group or do a testimonial about your products and services.

4. Advertising and promoting the store in the right venues leads to increased sales. Know your niche and go after it.

5. Understand the options available to your virtual server.

  • More than 50 percent of the top sites on the Web today are hosted by hosting services. Do not think that you have to host your site in-house. Realize there will be many cases when your Web server is up and operating, yet customers cannot connect to it. This is most often caused by heavy traffic loads on the Net or a down mode between your server and the customer.
  • A virtual online community Web site can provide online advertising, a product showcase, or a channel for customer support.
  • The biggest benefit the Internet adds to the mall concept is that, regardless of where the virtual stores are located, the store owner can have the appearance of being in the mall by getting hyper linked to it. This enables stores to be in more than one virtual mall without opening branch stores.

Different Credit Cards
While MasterCard and Visa are the two cards shoppers use most, clever sites offer as many options as possible, including American Express, Discover, and (for international users) the JCB card. Unfortunately, each card has its own method of collecting and reconciling purchases, as well as special start-up procedures. Whether or not your company already accepts credit cards, you'll need to bring your finance department into this process early. One major international company discovered partway into its site's development that it only could accept checks. The resulting delays to the Web site cost the firm tens of thousands of dollars.

Find the Right Bank
Before accepting credit cards, you'll need what's called an acquiring bank to handle the credit card processing services. In many cases, your regular bank can handle this for you. Be aware that each acquiring bank uses a different method to charge for the service of translating digital records into cold cash--usually a percentage of total sales, known as a discount rate--so shop around.
At the end of each month, your Web site orders will have to be reconciled with statements from the credit card companies. Thus, be sure your e-commerce software has good reporting tools that allow you to separate Visa and American Express orders, for example.

Store Credit Card Data Carefully
Storing credit card data helps make purchasing easier, but you have to be careful not to arouse consumer fears. You need good planning; strong communications; and, a solid, secure, end-to-end architecture. Before you accept the first encrypted transaction, have all of the servers and networks checked by trusted MIS security personnel. Nothing will destroy your company's reputation--and your customer's trust--faster than stolen credit card information. Misinformation in the mainstream media means you'll have to go the extra step to make your users feel safe.

Your site should store credit card numbers only when customers login with a username and password. Storing credit card numbers in URLs is unacceptable from a security standpoint. Credit card data must be encrypted on a secure server, which should be architecturally separate from your public Web server. Be sure to provide proper offline security for lost passwords. And ask yourself some tough questions: How are you going to update the credit card data? How will you positively identify users asking for lost passwords?
When evaluating e-commerce software, look for user-friendly administrative interfaces in this area--you shouldn't have to call a programmer every time someone loses a password. Fortunately, dozens of e-commerce software packages now include credit card processing. Some of the leaders are listed below:

CyberCash's CashRegister: end-user "wallet" software (allows secure payments using their proprietary method), plus payment processing software; runs on Solaris, NT, SGI Irix, HP-UX, BSDI, Free BSD, Digital Unix, SCO, Aix, and Linux RedHat; and works with most major e-commerce server software. IBM's Net.Commerce: end-to-end e-commerce solution; runs on NT and AIX (with Solaris and AS/400 ports "coming soon"); and works with most major Web server software. ICVerify: standalone credit card processing software; runs on DOS, Windows, and some Unix versions; and works with Microsoft Site Server. Netscape CommerceXpert: end-to-end commerce solution (formerly Actra); components run on Solaris and NT. VeriFone Internet Commerce: industry-leading standalone electronic-payment processing software; works with most major e-commerce applications, though some components run on Windows NT only.

Ordering and Fulfillment Tips
Web builders often gloss over how customers will actually order their products--not to mention how those products will be delivered.
Navigation to and from the product and ordering pages is critical, but not always fully considered. Exactly how will users get from the home page to a product page to the shopping list to the credit card order entry screen? Less obviously, how will they get back to the product page if they forgot to choose something? More a brute force effort than a technical challenge, order fulfillment and tracking requires smart systems that are able to talk with one another.

Service and Support Tips
Without question, the keys to customer loyalty are around-the-clock, Internet-savvy customer and postsales support. Once the order is committed, users should be immediately thanked onscreen--and have their orders confirmed. You'd be amazed at how many e-commerce sites simply can't be bothered to say, "Thank you." Instead, they display a coldly generic Return To Shopping button.
Another key component of customer loyalty is trust. Make a point of telling your Web site visitors exactly what you're doing with the data you collect.

Privacy Policies
There are a lot of concern about about consumer privacy due to the rise in identity theft. Post a clear, concise and honest privacy policy. Make sure that it is easy for your customers to find and understand. Do not weigh it down with "legalizes". If you need to gather visitor's names, addresses or other vital information for any reason make sure you state what purpose it will be used for as well as if it will be shared with any other affiliates, businesses, representative or others. Include links to any of the businesses or affiliates that you might need to share information with so that your visitors and customers can check out their policies as well.


Download Our: Beginners Guide to Owning a Web Site
This FREE PDF booklet contains important information for anyone new to establishing a new web site. It includes information about what to look for in a hosting company, the steps to getting a merchant account as well as marketing & site promotion tips!

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