Award-Winning Business Models

What does an online printing company have in common with an online travel company (besides being web-based)? For one thing, both recently won the Successful Internet Business Model award. But the similarity goes beyond being recognized as leaders in the Internet industry. There are a number of other similarities that hint at specific techniques that successful dot-com companies will need to survive.

The two companies that won this year’s Successful Internet Business Model award are iPrint.com and Priceline.com. Both use the unique advantages of selling over the web to help meet the needs of customers in their target markets.

iPrint.com customers can order custom printing services at the iPrint web site by simply entering text information into online forms and selecting the graphics themselves. The traditional ordering process for many printed products consists of a salesperson’s filling out a paper form, checking appropriate boxes for size, color and other options, then attaching camera-ready art to the order. iPrint’s self-service approach to ordering printing services not only replaces the order-taking salesperson with a web interface, but it puts the sales process directly under customer control.

Priceline.com, on the other hand, changed the sales process by allowing customers to set their own price. It started with airline tickets and now uses the “name your own price” approach for products and services such as hotel rooms, groceries, rental cars, new cars and home financing. The difference here is that Priceline allows consumers to control the price at which they will make a purchase.

There are many travel sites where you can order airline tickets, and there are also many sites where you can order printing, but both of these companies turn the ordering process into an interactive experience under the control of the customer.

The web is interactive by its very nature, and the business models for these companies combine that interactivity with their ability to meet customer needs for some rather common and frequently needed products and services. And, they do it in a way that allows customers to guide the process to meet their needs.

There are a number of ways to involve customers directly in the purchase of products. As a customer is gathering information about a product online, he or she should have access to as much information as possible. This allows customers to explore and learn at their own pace, perhaps looking at different options or product configurations.

With iPrint’s online interface, you can try different ways to arrange text, graphics, and colors without having to wait for a graphics artist to create the different combinations for you. With the advent of desktop publishing, it became possible for many people to explore different designs without the delay of manual art creation. iPrint brings this benefit to the web by making it easy to create the different options instantly through their online interface.

In the case of Priceline, price-conscious travelers had frequently voiced concerns that travel agents and reservation centers were not always offering the lowest-priced fares or seeking the most convenient flights. This created an opportunity for web businesses to meet the need for readily available travel information. Web sites allowing travelers to research low prices appeal to this market because these consumers felt their need for full information was being withheld from them.

In both cases, the web was used to speed the flow of information necessary to complete certain aspects of the transaction. What’s interesting is that the use of this information is repetitive. By providing this information, these sites can satisfy a large segment of consumers.

However, there are many times when automated web-based ordering simply won’t work, and a salesperson is needed to understand the customer’s unique needs and provide a customized solution. Graphics designers are needed to create truly unique printed and online materials, and travel agents are needed when the complexities of a trip are beyond the routine round trip, car, and hotel reservations.

Providing answers to the questions that frequently come up during the sales process and automating routine purchases with an e-commerce system allows companies to get out of the way when customers want to drive the purchase process themselves which improves the experience for both buyer and seller.

The key to knowing when to use automated e-commerce solutions? Know what’s routine and what requires creative problem solving by your sales and customer support people. If salespeople are simply taking information from customers and filling out a form for products that are already being purchased, then these products are likely candidates for a successful e-commerce opportunity.

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