One of the oft-quoted advantages of selling online is that the internet is “the great leveler.” That is, a small business can compete effectively against larger, better-funded rivals.
In many respects, this statement still holds true. For example, there are now a large number of storefront creation packages available that make the setting up of a professional-looking store a relatively straightforward business.
However, there are several areas where it is becoming more difficult for the smaller web merchant to compete. One example is the field of “automated interaction,” the automation of routine customer support and marketing tasks.
Many web store owners are uncomfortable with this concept. They believe strongly that their competitive edge lies in their ability to provide a higher level of personal customer interaction than larger rivals. But one of the biggest threats facing small online store owners is the increase in order volume and email to a level where the owner is no longer able to provide a satisfactory level of support to his or her customers.
To avoid this pitfall, the web merchant needs to be able to automate as many of his or her day-to-day tasks as possible. Most savvy web merchants will already be using methods such as extensive online FAQs and auto responders.
But how can they move beyond this? Their larger rivals have solved the problem by either purchasing high-cost software or commissioning an in-house team to write custom applications. Obviously, these are not feasible solutions for the smaller store.
The good news is that several pieces of new low-cost software is becoming available. For example, take Roving Software’s Constant Contact, a package of tools designed to manage the complete customer contact process. There are five different packages available, but the one most likely to attract the attention of smaller merchants is the entry level package, Constant Contact: Free
Constant Contact: Free is, as its name suggests, free for merchants. It consists of a suite of four tools: “Reminder,” “Email This Page to A Friend,” “My Store Favorites,” and “Keep Me Posted.” Here’s what each tool does:
This tool allows shoppers to enter the details of any event they wish to be reminded off — maybe a birthday or anniversary — together with a text message. They are then automatically emailed a reminder message on the date they specify.
The message includes a link to the merchant’s store, along with details of up to two products or special offers that the merchant wishes to highlight.
Email This Page to a Friend
Often seen on the larger sites, this option allows readers to email a page to a friend along with comments. One disadvantage is that only the URL of the page is mailed, not the page contents; thus the message recipient must go online to view the page.
My Store Favorites
This is probably the most useful device of all. It gives shoppers the ability to add items of interest to their own list of favorites. Then, when they are finished browsing through the store, they can call up their list and click on the links to return immediately to the items they have marked.
Keep Me Posted
This tool automatically sends the customer an email when a selected page in the store changes. One problem with this feature is that merchants are unable to specify what level of change or what events would trigger an email to be sent. A merchant will likely only want customers notified of any major changes — such as a price decrease.
Technically, these four tools work very well. The set-up process is straightforward, and there is no software for the merchant to install. Instead, everything is run and managed from the Constant Contact Server. A simple wizard produces the HTML code, to be cut and pasted into the web pages by the merchant.
It’s not all gravy, though.
- All tools above work by opening up a new browser window, a technique that can irritate some shoppers and can cause some older browsers to crash.
- “Free” really means advertising supported — each tool carries a link to Constant Contact, and some links carry banner adverts for third parties.
- The merchant has no access to the email addresses that their shoppers provide and can not, for example, send them any follow-up email messages.
Verdict: Despite the limitations noted above, Roving Software provides the smaller merchant with a truly useful set of tools that can quickly and easily be assimilated into a store.