How to expand your business with ecommerce

If you’re not using ecommerce to reach new customers, you’re missing out on a huge opportunity. Here are some tips on how to start selling online.

Whether it’s on a laptop, smartphone or tablet, your customers are using the internet to find and buy what they want. Promoting and selling your product online is now a vital part of running a successful business. This act of selling online is called ecommerce. Here are some tips to get started.

Define your ecommerce goals with five questions

  1. How much should I invest in ecommerce?
    If you already have a ‘real world’ business, a modest investment in ecommerce will let you test the waters. On the other hand, if you’re planning an online-only business you’ll need to invest a lot more time and money.
  2. Why do I want to do business online?
    Do you want an ecommerce presence because everybody else has one? Or because you think it could help your business? Check out Simon Sinek’s TED talk ‘Start with why’ to help you figure out your motivation.
  3. How long will it take to pay off?
    Your investment in ecommerce probably won’t show results overnight. It might take six months, a year, or maybe longer for ecommerce to really pay off for your business. Use your accounting software to make forecasts so you can budget sensibly.
  4. Will it help me reach the right customers?
    Ecommerce is an effective way to reach a wider audience. But your business might already reach the right customers through different channels. If your business is growing well through brick and mortar retail or telesales, your investment might be better spent elsewhere – or at least postponed.
  5. Is my business ready?
    If your ecommerce investment is successful it could have a drastic impact on your business. Make sure you’re prepared for any new customers that might come your way. This means getting your accounts in order and ensuring your supply chain can respond.

Reflect your brand personality

Unless your business plan is based around a sales platform like Amazon or eBay, you’ll need to build your own website. A poorly made site may discourage customers – so don't cut corners. Your ecommerce presence is an extension of your brand, it should reflect the quality of that brand accurately.

There are plenty of ecommerce platforms you can build from, such as Shopify. You may need a catalogue or shopping-cart application on your website – ecommerce means selling, after all. You might also need secure payment processing, especially if you're taking credit card orders. You can use PayFast for this. All of this requires some knowledge and experience to set up, so don’t be afraid to pay for professional help in developing your site.

Use social media to engage with your customers

Traditional advertising tends to be a one-way street – you broadcast a message to the masses and hope for a response. The beauty of social media is that it lets you engage with potential customers in two-way dialogues.

With Twitter you can start conversations with your existing and potential customers. For the best results keep your tweets light, friendly, interesting and helpful – they shouldn’t all be focused on selling. By tweeting regularly and consistently you can establish yourself as a source of useful content for your followers.

Facebook also makes it easy to start conversations with people who ‘like’ your business. Again, if you regularly post relevant and interesting content, you can solidify your brand as trustworthy and authoritative. Remember, if you offer something of value to your customers, they’ll spread the word about your business.

Just be sure to learn how to deal with negative feedback, which is always much more visible online. You can read more in our guide to handling customer complaints.

Use available cloud tools

Many business applications are now available in the cloud – this means they’re accessible online. If you’re running an online business this is great news, because:

  • You can access your applications and data using any internet-capable device.
  • You can log in from anywhere, any time.
  • No need to worry about manual backups – your data is secured for you.
  • You don’t have to worry about software upgrades and maintenance – that’s all taken care of automatically.

You’ll need to think about the types of applications you’ll need to make the cloud work for your online business. You might need software for accounting, inventory management, sales processing and marketing.

Depending on your business, you may need others. Ideally they should all sync, or ‘talk’, with each other so you can access all the information you need from one application. Make sure you do your research to find the cloud applications that will best benefit your business.

Keep on top of your tax obligations

Starting ecommerce is exciting – you’re potentially reaching customers all over the world. But different countries have different tax requirements, which can make tax calculations tricky.

Taxes vary a lot from one place to another. Taxes you may be used to, like VAT for instance, simply don’t exist in places like the US. Ask an accountant to help you get started, and choose high quality accounting software that supports multi-currency. Legal penalties can be high, so make sure you keep tax obligations at the top of your list.

Be prepared for a different style of business

Selling online isn’t like doing business face-to-face. Things happen a lot faster and your customers will expect a lot. Before you start ecommerce, be aware of the differences and prepare for them. For example:

  • You may have sales enquiries at any time of the day of night
  • You might have questions from people in different countries and in different languages
  • You will have to find cost-effective shipping methods
  • Any negative reviews of your business will spread quickly
  • Inventory management will likely be a vital part of your business
  • You'll need to learn how to deal with returns and fraudulent purchases.

While it can seem overwhelming, the potential benefits of having an effective ecommerce system far outweigh the problems. Once you get used to this new style of business, it’ll be second nature.

Optimise your site for mobile

More people are accessing the internet on mobile devices than ever before. Up to half of all internet traffic is now on smartphones and tablets. So your ecommerce website must be accessible and usable on mobile platforms.

You should discuss this your web developer to make sure your website ticks all the right boxes for mobile optimisation. You should make sure your mobile site is:

  • Fast and responsive. Mobile users are impatient with slow-loading pages
  • Big user interface. A finger on a touchscreen is less precise than a mouse click
  • Uncluttered. Don’t distract your customers with an overload of information.
  • Easy to search. Let your customers find the product they want.

Remember that a mobile-optimised website and a mobile app are two different things. You shouldn’t worry about developing an app until your website provides an excellent user experience on mobile devices.

Ecommerce is a core part of your business

To get the most out of ecommerce, it should be tightly integrated with the rest of your business. Keeping everything together makes it easier to track sales performance and manage your inventory. You should also provide your customers the same great service, whether you’re selling online or through a store.

So use whatever tools you need in order to keep your business fully integrated. Use cloud applications to handle inventory, accounting, payroll, marketing and more. These will help you keep tabs on every aspect of your online presence.

By keeping these tips in mind, you can make ecommerce work for your business – wherever you happen to be.