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Creating a Customer-Centric Online Selling Strategy

One thing we all learned from the “Testing Out the AmazonSupply Waters” story was that many distributors struggle to compete with the online “giants”. tED Magazine researched tips you can use today to improve your online presence by building a stronger website. – Scott Costa, Publisher, tED Magazine

By Bridget McCrea

If this is the year that your distributorship gets its act together online and either launches a new e-commerce presence or fine-tunes an existing one, here are nine tips to follow as you strive for this goal:

1. Factor customer wants and needs into your e-commerce strategy. There are so many tools, platforms, and applications vying for your attention these days, but none of them will help your distributorship achieve its e-commerce goals if it doesn’t have a solid, well-defined strategy in place first. A good starting point is a customer insight survey, for example, to figure out exactly what those electrical contractors and other clients really want and expect from your online presence. These surveys focus on your current customers, their characteristics, wants/needs, purchase habits, preferences, and other key metrics.

2. Build around current customer behaviors as opposed to “expected” behaviors. “The more you understand how your customers behave naturally, the easier it will be to build a website that’s very engaging and productive,” Keating urges. Taking the opposite approach by building the online mechanisms first – and then “hoping” that customers adapt and change to accommodate them – is a surefire plan for failure online. “You don’t want to have to force customers into new behaviors and environments,” says Keating. “Instead, talk to clients about their current habits and then shape your e-commerce strategy around their answers.” 

3. Utilize multiple online marketing support mechanisms. A website is one thing, but a site that reaches customers and draws them in requires support tools like search engine optimization (SEO), personalized content, and social media connections. “There’s this unrealistic expectation that a new e-commerce platform will just automatically start attracting customers and a huge number of sales,” says Denise Keating, president of Sycamore, Ill.-based DATAgility. “It doesn’t work that way; you not only have to equip your site with the functions, features, and product data, but you also need the marketing strategies that drive traffic to your online presence.”

4. Tap into the power of big data and advanced analytics. The modern-day website has gone far beyond just “taking orders” via shopping carts. Sites now serve as valuable sources of customer data and information related to sales, preferences, buying habits, and myriad other measures. Distributors, in in turn, can use this information to take action and make better decisions. “Make sure you have all of the metrics in place to measure the success of your web implementation,” Keating advises, “and to make the necessary tweaks going forward.”

5. Set clear objectives. Don’t just fire up a new website because “everyone else is” or because your nearest competitor just invested $10,000 in its online presence. When you take the time to set logical and applicable objectives first, before pouring money or time into the project, you wind up with a much better result. “Figure out what you want to get in return from your investment and what your customers and/or business partners expect from it,” Keating says, “then put all of the strategies and tools in place to support those objectives.” 

6. Break out of the one-size-fits-all lead generation mode. Remember that the web is not just about serving your existing customers, but it’s also about attracting new ones to your distributorship’s online home. In order to increase the amount of sales coming through the online channel via the web, Angela Baraks, DATAgility’s director of marketing, says distributors should “define the expectation of the customer who is buying from you online.” Some customers are self-sufficient and place only smaller orders, for example, while others need the support of a salesperson to help them purchase complicated products or large orders of specific SKUs. “There are certain segments of customers that distributors can provide valuable services to in an online environment,” says Baraks, “and differentiating factors among those segments that need to be considered.”

7. Promote your value-added services and “extras” online. Do you offer jobsite delivery? Same-day service? Overnight shipping? Product kitting? Training and support? If your company’s list of value-added services is seemingly endless, be sure to promote these extras online – particularly to your “high value” customers. “Make sure customers know about all of the great services that are available to them,” says Baraks, “by making this information available in a very visible place right on your website.” 

8. Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions. How much does a particular customer buy from your firm? What types of business activities is he engaged in? How is he going to buy from us online? If he’s not already buying online, would he if we introduced a new website? Is he using a smartphone or tablet to procure parts/equipment? (And if the answer is yes, then is he using an iPhone or an Android device?) “The answers to these questions will impact how you ultimately decide to develop your e-commerce platform in terms of features and functionalities,” says Keating. “It’s a pretty intensive process, but one that helps distributors understand their key customers and what they need.”

9. Get a handle on what your competitors are doing online. If you haven’t taken a good look at what other distributors and e-tailers in the electrical space are doing online lately, now is a good time to brush off your “business intelligence” hat and take a look around. “Look at what they’re doing and what they’re not doing online,” says Keating. Once you’ve done your homework, the next step will be to build a “better and different experience for your customers,” she adds. (Tip: Circle back to tips #1, #2, and #8 in this article for advice on how to figure out how to best shape that experience around customer wants and needs.) “By looking at how others – both in and out of your industry – are already operating online,” says Keating, “you’ll be able to get a good gauge on what is and isn’t working, and what you need to do to rise above the rest online.”

McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.

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