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Next steps once you’ve started selling online

In the early days of lockdown, many small businesses had to rush to create a short-term online offering to get through the first few weeks. Here we detail some next steps for managing this.


9 min read

1. Overview

Now the initial shock has passed, and the Scottish Government has published its route map, many businesses will need to continue operating online for some time. This is partly because coming out of lockdown is a complex process. Also, customers and staff may not rush to embrace new freedoms - although some are desperate to get back to normal, others can’t - perhaps because they or someone they live with is particularly at risk.

However, more positively, operating online brings new opportunities:

  • More business confidence online: businesses have discovered new ways of working that they would never have had time to embrace before.
  • More customer confidence online: far more of the general public (including older age groups) are more confident interacting online with everything from online payments to video calls.
  • Increased customer desire to spend more time at home: Some people have found benefits with some aspects of lockdown life.

Therefore, many businesses will now want to run a hybrid approach by providing a face-to-face and an online service at the same time.

What are the next steps for managing this?

2. Review where you are now


Pause to collate any feedback from staff and customers. If you’ve not had any feedback, then now’s a good time to ask.

Consider a quick social post or email regular customers asking for constructive suggestions. Use this to look at what is or is not working well, and identify opportunities or new ways of doing things.

Costs and pricing

Pricing is key to marketing and it’s always a tricky balancing act.

Changing how you operate may have impacted your costs. Now you’ll have several weeks of costs to help your projections. Work that into your thinking, asking for your accountant’s advice if needed.

For example, for small shops, automatically offering free contactless delivery may have been a wise decision. Now you know what’s involved and the value it brings, consider if this is still viable, or whether customers might accept a small delivery charge if needed. Or alternatively vice versa!

Many service businesses switched to online alternatives, such as remote consultancy or classes. Initially, many worried that existing customers wouldn’t perceive these to be as valuable, so offered them free, or created voucher schemes where those continuing to subscribe were offered credit for future services or products.

This approach was sensible and fine for a few weeks. But it may not be sustainable. Now it’s clear that online alternatives do offer value, customers will often be prepared to pay.

It’s now worth taking a fresh look at the products and services you’ll offer for the next few months, what you’ll charge, and how you’ll deliver them.

3. Continuing your online offering

Planning for a hybrid approach

When your premises are permitted to open again, but staff resource and customer demand is not back to normal, consider how you could offer a hybrid service. For instructors or physiotherapists, this could be a combination of weekly online sessions with one monthly face-to-face session.

For shops, this could be offering a physical service for smaller transitions and keeping online ordering and delivery to purchases over a certain value.

Analysing and prioritising

The feedback you’ve gathered will help you look at the ‘people’ side of your business, which is core to your offering:

  • Customers: What do your customers now want and need?
  • Staff: What are your staff able and happy to deliver?

Then, you need to merge this with the latest regulations and guidance.

At this point, you may feel like you’re facing one barrier after another. To help overcome this:

  • Positive mindset: Focus on what you CAN do, not what you CAN’T do.
  • Streamlined offering: You don’t need to sell everything you used to - it’s fine to simplify things.
  • Prioritise what’s important: Don’t chase perfection. At the moment, ‘functional’ is acceptable. For your high-end cheesecakes, the flavour is more important than the design on the box. If you’re delivering online classes, the quality of the audio is more important than your background.

This approach allows you to test your offering and generate income quickly, then learn and adapt as you go.

Establishing an online platform

If you’re not yet using a platform for your online offering (for example if you are just working off an order list or Facebook posts), find an online ecommerce platform that suits your needs. Find further support on switching to trading online and selecting the right platforms to run online classes.

Refining your online platform

If you had to launch your online offering very quickly, you may have had to implement an ‘MVP’ version (a minimum viable product) or a ‘quick fix’.

This means that you might have a very basic offering to get you by, or you may not have implemented all of the features available to you.

If you’re continuing online, now’s the time to ask if your platform is working for you as it should. Is there an opportunity to do more with it? Read our action plan for managing your new online platform.

Integrating your online and offline business

A ‘workaround’ online offering will be fine while normal business is paused, however as lockdown lifts, this may become unmanageable (for example if you are physically working in a shop but still taking other orders by phone, or if class bookings are run on an adhoc basis).

Many online platforms or apps will offer features to help you automate some of your online offering - whether that’s online purchases in an ecommerce store, online booking and appointment scheduling functionality such as Acuity or MeetFox or automated customer service responses such as chatbots. Plan now for what you can automate before you begin running both an online and an offline service.

4. Develop a marketing plan

As you move forward, it’s essential to think about how your online offering and your physical offering can co-exist and thrive. You also need to nurture and market your new offering to maintain and grow your customer base.

In these changing times you’ll need a balanced approach to focus on:

  • Maintaining existing customers
  • Acquiring new customers
  • Widening the net

Marketing an online service can bring new opportunities, For example, if you can usually only reach a local audience with your physical classes, you may be able to reach a much wider audience with an online service.

That being said, it is important to focus on your existing customers and traditional customer base first.

Keeping existing customers

Keeping customers generally requires much less effort than finding new ones. Conversely, money can be wasted finding new customers if you can’t then keep them.

Even for businesses currently overwhelmed with high demand, this is still important as it impacts your business reputation and long-term future.

Update and engage existing customers

Use your existing channels, such as your social media platforms and your permitted email database, to keep your existing customers up to date with your service, and share any offers that you have available to them.

Maintain a focus on customer service

Customer service is key in maintaining your customer base. Although currently the logistics of your service could be changeable, as long as you let customers know what to expect they will likely be more tolerant of delays or added steps. Put customer satisfaction at the fore and create a coronavirus statement.

Response times are also key. At present you may be able to give quick customer responses across different channels, as they come in, which is great. However, plan for the future. As we move out of lockdown and you look to maintain a hybrid offering, you will need to think carefully about how customers can and should contact you and be realistic in your response times. If you’re likely to be run off your feet, select only one or two channels for contact (such as Facebook messenger and email) and state upfront that you will respond within a realistic timeframe - e.g. 24hours, to avoid frustration and customer loss.

Acquiring new customers

Unless you’re a business struggling to cope with current demand, you’ll need to make a plan for new customer acquisition. Your specific strategy will vary by your business and your customer, however some things to consider include:

Think local

If your service is local, think local initially. Push your existing online service now, with the hope of gaining new customers for your physical and online service in the future.

Social media will be key for many businesses. As well as posting, advertise on social platforms within your geographical area - for example run targeted Facebook ads in the city you serve. Push your new offering out to the local press. Optimise your website pages for your new offering or ‘delivery’ and ‘online’ phrases (that have seen a huge uplift since lockdown). Also update your Google My Business listing for your new service.

Enable your advocates

Enable existing customers to be your advocates by encouraging customers to share their photos or experience of your service through your social platforms (e.g. “here’s how we plate our takeaway dishes, how do you do it at home?” or run small scale competitions/giveaways or caption quizzes for customers on social) or host local ‘nights' - such as virtual book clubs, quizzes etc.

Use known third party platforms

If your online service is new and not sustained by existing customers, consider using existing marketplaces. This is ideal if you have only ever operated through physical premises and have no existing customer contact details or minimal social media following. For eCommerce businesses, platforms include Etsy, eBay, Amazon, Facebook Marketplace and Gumtree. For digital products like online training and classes, options include Udemy, Teachable and Thinkific. Generally, you will pay to be listed on these, or pay a commission for each sale you make.

More active acquisition

Once you’ve proved your hybrid product offering and pricing meet customer needs, you may be ready to invest more time and budget in proactive marketing and Business Gateway can help you navigate your way through this. Get in touch with your nearest local office for support.

There’s also some examples where SMEs have received good advertising rates from media owners on social media or outdoor so keep an eye out for these.

5. Remember everything will keep changing

As the situation evolves you will have to regularly review your products and services, pricing and promotion and keep testing, learning and adapting where you can.

Keep up to date with the latest Scottish Government guidance and adapt and update your service and platforms accordingly.

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