- Part 1 Overview
- Part 2 Get started with e-commerce
- Part 3 Maintain and develop your e-commerce services
- Part 4 Understand IT regulations and policies
- Part 5 Make the most of your IT and e-commerce
E-commerce plays an increasingly important role in the way in which products and services are purchased.
E-commerce systems such as your website can be used to market and sell to customers, and to provide after-sales support. E-commerce can also be an important part of strengthening relationships and improving the efficiency of your dealings with suppliers and other key trading partners.
This guide looks at the key issues to consider when planning for the introduction of e-commerce. It provides advice on how best to identify the opportunities for e-commerce within your business and the solutions available. It also emphasises the need to plan for the ongoing development and maintenance of any e-commerce system at the outset.
Get started with e-commerce
Investigate your options for getting online. Make sure you choose the right website and email addresses so your customers and suppliers can find you quickly and easily.
Consider the different ways to connect your business to the internet, ranging from dial-up through to ADSL, cable and satellite.
Pay attention to the design of your site. The overall look and feel will play an important role in its usability. There are also legal issues to consider in the design of the website. For example, you must ensure it's accessible for disabled people.
Sales and marketing online
If you want to sell directly through your website, you'll need to have the infrastructure in place to showcase your products and services and process orders electronically.
To complete your e-commerce solution, you'll need to set up the facility to accept payment through your website.
Once your shop is online, consider how to monitor its effectiveness, make it more powerful and ultimately sell more through it. Think about how you can drive traffic to your site. Also look at how you can build a community around your brand through the use of social media and other Web 2.0 technologies.
Maintain and develop your e-commerce services
Your work doesn't end once your initial e-commerce system is up and running. You need to maintain the site, constantly review how well it is operating and consider new opportunities and ways of working that it may present to you.
Maintaining your e-commerce site
You must ensure that the content of the site is accurate and updated regularly. This will help to promote a positive image for the business, attracting and retaining visitors to the site.
As your e-commerce presence grows, you must protect yourself against the threats posed by hackers, viruses and fraudsters. Identify the risks they pose and implement appropriate security controls to counter them.
Identifying new opportunities
Mobile commerce (m-commerce) is a type of e-commerce conducted through mobile devices such as mobile phones, smart phones, personal digital assistants and other devices with a wireless connection. M-commerce brings new opportunities to small businesses both to sell new services and to operate existing businesses more efficiently.
Extranets can enable your business to communicate and collaborate more effectively with selected business partners, suppliers and customers. They can play an important role in enhancing business relationships and improving supply chain management. Intranets are an invaluable way to communicate with employees, especially for businesses with multiple locations and staff who work remotely or from home.
An e-marketplace allows you to use a variety of online services such as electronic catalogues, business directory listings and online auctions to sell your goods and services more effectively to other businesses.
Remember that not all e-commerce developments are a success. You can learn a lot from the experiences of other e-commerce providers and, hopefully, ensure that you don't make the same mistakes.
Understand IT regulations and policies
There are a number of different regulations that you may need to comply with, particularly if you store customer or supplier information, or sell goods or services online. In addition there are internal policies that you are recommended to implement if your staff make use of the internet or email.
If you store details about customers, suppliers or potential suppliers on your systems, you must comply with the Data Protection Act 1998.
When trading over the internet, the same rules apply as with the formation of other types of contract. The E-commerce Regulations 2002 are intended to ensure that electronic contracts are binding and enforceable throughout Europe.
Be aware that legislation is also in place to regulate the ways in which you can use electronic marketing to promote your e-commerce services.
If your staff have access to email and the internet, then you should be aware of the associated concerns. These can range from excessive personal use through to potentially opening your business up to the risk of prosecution. Consider introducing policies that clearly state what is and isn't acceptable in terms of internet and email usage.
Make the most of your IT and e-commerce
To make the most of your IT and e-commerce investment, there are several points you need to observe:
- Focus on the business benefits, not the technology - you may want to make your finance team more productive by eliminating repetitive processes. All you need to know about the hardware and software is whether it will achieve this - its technical specification isn't important.
- Only approve projects when you're confident they support your business objectives - if you're looking to get products to market faster it's worth investing in supply-chain management software. However, if customers are happy with longer lead times there's little benefit to your business.
- Plan to achieve measurable improvements - eg if you start an online shop, it's a good idea to set sales targets and monitor their effectiveness.
- Don't leave the planning to your suppliers or consultants - only you know what your business really needs from IT. Suppliers and consultants may have their own interests in mind and suggest you spend more than you need to achieve your goals.
- Recognise the requirement to provide ongoing support to your staff to ensure problems are quickly resolved and system performance issues addressed.
- Get your budgeting right - including future expenditure or maintenance, replacement and upgrading. If you have made provision for your IT systems, you will have the funds when you need to boost your system or take advantage of new technologies.
- Review projects regularly to ensure that the planned benefits are being realised - eg if your finance team are still carrying out repetitive tasks that should have been eliminated, you'll be paying twice, once for the IT and again for the staff costs it was supposed to have replaced.
Read our guide Business IT: the basics.