This is the Virtual Moment Your Business is Waiting For

Title graphic on how to build out the ecommerce side of your business for "This is the Virtual Moment for Your Business" blog post by New Brunswick freelance writer, Winluck Wong

How we proceed from here will define our future “normal”.

Between balancing the health of the people and the economy, it’s becoming clearer every day there’s no going back to the old way of doing business.

Just a few weeks into the pandemic, people completely changed their shopping habits. Items as mundane as groceries and household supplies these days are routinely bought online.

For many, what began as a necessity now seems to be a more convenient way of life. No more dealing with rush hour. No more standing in line. Essential goods on demand.

Customers have opened their eyes to the power of online shopping. Some may even keep this new habit when lockdowns lift one day.

To prepare for this possibility, companies need to dust off their virtual business plan.

Most brick-and-mortar businesses have a plan of some sort to eventually go virtual. An online revenue stream. More efficient workflow on the backend. What business wouldn’t want that?

But it demands a lot of resources that may not be readily available. And with each passing workday, the plan keeps getting pushed back until some downtime can be found.

The thing is, there’s never any downtime. There’s always something to look after or something else to invest in when you’re running a business. So if you really want the virtual plan to move forward, you have to make it the number-one priority yesterday.

The next best time is today – amidst the biggest downtime in decades for businesses everywhere.

Build an online path to your store

The first part of the plan with immediate returns is adding online sales to your business website.

Your biggest concern now more than ever is to keep the revenues coming in. Putting up your online shop ASAP means you won’t lose your current customers just because they can’t visit your physical store. This is essential to staying afloat while seeing how the re-opening economy unfolds.

It would also set you up nicely for a future play on the greener side of the fence.

Ecommerce has grown at such a lightning pace that it’s expected to make up over 10% of Canadian retail sales by 2022. And that’s “low” compared to global ecommerce percentages. You can bet that figure will jump once people realize things won’t go back to “normal” anytime soon, if ever.

Another advantage of adding online sales is it gives you some much-needed financial flexibility.

There are quite a few solutions that make it easy to set up an online shop.

The simplest is to check whether your website host has an ecommerce plugin. Even better if the plugin can sync inventory tracking with your store’s POS system.

If that doesn’t work, there are also full-service ecommerce solutions. Weigh the costs, features, and tech support access of each platform to make sure it fits with your business needs. Again, you want it to merge seamlessly with your current inventory management system. At the very least, it should give your virtual store a responsive, mobile-friendly design. It should also follow the PCI Standard to safeguard your customers’ credit card information.

Sell on your online shop

Once the shop is online, it’s time to put your products up for sale. Start with your best-sellers and work your way through the rest of the inventory.

Now that the shopping experience is completely online, you have to answer customer questions before they even come up. This will make all the difference between them completing the checkout or abandoning the shopping cart.

The best way to do that is to provide as much information as possible up front.

First off, take high-quality photos of your products in different angles. If they come in parts, photograph each part as well. For even better results, hire a local photographer with product photography expertise. Thorough photos ease customer anxiety of not being able to see and touch your products in person. The more you can show that what they buy is what they expect, the more confidence they will have in your brand.

Next up: product descriptions. These showcase the benefits of the product. Put yourself in the shoes of the customer and focus on how the products will improve the way they do something. Rather than rattling off the features on how great the product is, highlight the benefits showing why it’s great for the customer.

An experienced copywriter can help you do that. Compelling sales copy convinces your ideal customer this is what they’ve been searching for all along.

For example, let’s say a Ferengi merchant wants to sell self-sealing stem bolts to a factory. It’s not enough to say, “Our self-sealing stem bolts have a proprietary mix of 80% duranium, aluminum, and steel alloys with 11% electrically modulated ceramic and 9% thermally stabilized plastic.” While that may sound amazing to the manufacturer, any Ferengi merchant worth their lobes would know they have to do more to sway the buyer.

With that in mind, a better product description would be: “Our self-sealing stem bolts are made with 80% duranium, aluminum, and steel alloys bonded with 9% thermally stabilized plastic – a reinforced and adaptive material that lasts a lifetime without having to replace a part. They’re heat-shielded with 11% electrically modulated ceramic so your assembly line can run non-stop right up until you reach your production quota. The resilient strength of our proprietary design will triple your factory’s production of reverse-ratcheting routing planers.”

How you set the tone of the product description depends on your ideal customer. Always make sure to match the industry language and lingo they’re used to.

If you do have a lot of extra features or technical specifications, you should still list them. Doing so lessens the number of questions you’ll get. Just keep these details below the benefits or in a separate tab on the product page.

You should also post a detailed and hassle-free refund/return policy on your website. Knowing refunds or returns are possible and easy will boost customer confidence in buying your products online. It’s your guarantee that you stand by the quality of your products.

Change your customers’ shopping habit

So, your products are available online now. What’s next is encouraging your customers to change the way they shop with you – from in-store to online.

Valuable incentives motivate your customers to switch over to your online shop. Try handing out coupon codes to your loyal customers for exclusive online offers or sales of product bundles. Treat them well as they’re the first beta testers of your store’s new online shopping experience. Remember to ask them for feedback so you can keep the experience as smooth as possible.

Incentivize them to join your website email list, too! Inviting them to follow you on social media is also good, but you should always focus on growing your email list. Email is eternal while social media will always change in ways beyond your control.

Email marketing opens up more personal ways to connect with your customers. It builds a stronger, long-term customer relationship while keeping the door open to still promote your business.

There is a host of email marketing platforms out there to help you with email campaigns.

I started out with MailChimp, but ended up switching to ConvertKit instead. I find the latter much easier to use. It also offers way more design flexibility to match your brand colours and fonts. If you decide to try ConvertKit, sign up through this link to unlock 1,000 subscribers for free!

Another way to build up hype around the launch of your online shop is to set up a referral program. For example, give your current customers a unique link to share with family and friends. Anyone who buys from your online store via that link will get a discount. It then triggers a discount for the original customer’s next purchase, too.

Attract new customers

This takes care of your existing customers. But what about new ones?

The major advantage of putting your store online is the vast increase of your potential reach. You’re no longer stuck catering only to customers in your geographical area. Other like-minded customers from all over the world can now access your products.

Attracting these new online customers depends on your website’s SEO (search engine optimization). Proper SEO boosts your website as the top search result when someone Googles keywords associated with your business.

No matter how often Google tweaks its algorithm, the core of it will always be pointing people to the most authoritative resource. And to be that authority in your industry, you need an ample amount of long-form content like blog articles for search engines to index.

It’s the most powerful way your website can rank for specific keywords. At the same time, blog posts give you the space to explore complex topics in your brand’s natural voice. This is the way in for customers to relate to you.

As your website content grows, promote new articles to both your email list subscribers and your social media followers. Email lists may take priority when push comes to shove, but social media also plays a crucial role.

Think of all the various digital marketing methods as a convention. Email marketing is the deeper one-on-one conversations with people who want what you have to offer. Further out, blogging and website copy are the seminars for people who are curious to learn more about you. But before anyone decides what seminar to take and whom to talk to, they start by browsing through the main hall that is social media.

And if you want to catch their interest, you must stand out from all the other booths through engaging social media posts.

Your social media accounts are where you can get creative in allowing people a glimpse of your personality and your values as a business. It’s for you to intrigue like-minded people enough to want to be your customer one day.

Make the rest of your business virtual

Now let’s turn to what comes before and after someone confirms an order.

Ideally, most customer questions are already answered in your detailed product pages. For more specific questions though, you’ll need a team of customer service representatives. You’ll also need customer service software to manage them remotely. These software balance logging customer interactions and tracking team productivity.

This is a timely retraining opportunity you can offer your current employees. You already know they have no problem fielding customer questions. The only hurdle is whether they’re willing to work remotely. If not enough want to do that, you may have to hire people comfortable with remote work and using customer service software.

Something else that will help them a lot is a knowledge management system or an internal wiki. This would hold searchable step-by-step guides and answers to frequently asked questions. Even better, you can create a public knowledge base with some customer service software. Convert FAQs into public articles so customers can find answers themselves. This will decrease the time it takes for both employee training and customer service response.

Make sure to also get regular feedback from your team on what your customers keep asking about. This lets everyone know what sections in the knowledge management system need updating. It also gives you ideas on how to further improve your business.

Another essential part of ecommerce is streamlined delivery and shipping options. Depending on where most of your customers live, you may be able to offer in-store pickup or go through local delivery companies. Otherwise, you’re better off partnering with a third-party logistics provider to handle fulfillment for you. Work with them to set up a dynamic checkout page displaying the exact shipping fees and duties. If possible, allow for free shipping with bigger shopping cart totals.

Adapt your physical store

What happens to your brick-and-mortar location? The more your business goes virtual, the heavier this question weighs.

What used to be an annual existential question on the heels of a new ecommerce report suddenly turned into a daily one during lockdown.

But perhaps a better question should be: what can your brick-and-mortar location become?  

Ecommerce doesn’t make brick-and-mortar obsolete; it makes them optional. No longer does shutting down seem to be the only choice. Expanding into ecommerce buys you time to re-imagine how your physical store can complement your new online one.

What if you transform it into a showroom to demo your products with QR codes to buy them online? How about a set to shoot virtual tours or to host a product guide talk show? What if you re-purpose it into a consultation space to present a line of products as lifestyle solutions? How about a fan club with Instagram-worthy spaces for loyal customers to share their creativity using your products?

Now it’s a portal in the whole omni-channel shopping experience for your customer.

Of course, it’s also possible that the financials really can’t justify hanging on to the physical store. And maybe it’s okay to let it go by this point.

You don’t have all your eggs in one basket anymore. You’d be shutting down only the physical store – not your entire business.

By building out the ecommerce side, you’ve invested in resilience to bide your time and come back stronger than ever.

Take the opportunity to rethink your brand

Anytime you overhaul the way you do business is an opportunity to look at whether your brand still reflects these new changes. And moving your business online is a major opportunity.

A virtual storefront gives you immediate and direct control over how you want to shape your brand. As more customers buy from you online, you get real-time data that paints a better picture on what’s working well for your business.

Who is your ideal customer? Which products or services do they care most about from you?

These are the questions that lead to valuable building blocks for your brand. The answers tell you what to stay true to, even when the future is uncertain.

To get there, you need to know what questions to ask and this worksheet walks you through the essentials that strengthen your brand.

Choose your point of change

The popular interpretation of the Chinese term for “crisis” (“危机”) is that it comprises two characters: “danger” (“危”) and “opportunity” (“机”). So where there is danger, there is opportunity.

The risk in this interpretation though is the paralysis of searching for what that specific opportunity is.

There’s a far simpler way out of crisis – and it lies in re-interpreting its Chinese meaning.

Because the second character, “机”, more accurately describes “a point of change.” Looking at it that way, crisis is really just: a point of change in the face of danger.

It’s not to sift for the golden opportunity among all the chaos. It’s simply to change.

To try something different. Anything.

See what happens, learn from it, and keep adapting until you find a way through.

You may not know how the current crisis will turn out, but you can choose your point of change.

So choose now.

How have you changed the way you do business since last year?

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