For the small business owner, it just doesn't get any better than the Internet. Do you realize that with the right product - information or software for example - the time and money required to both process and fulfill your orders can literally approach zero?
We're not talking about a 100% profit margin, we're talking about a product that costs you absolutely nothing at all to produce and deliver to your customers once you're all setup. And imagine being able to sell these products, which cost you nothing, all day long without having to do any paperwork, without having to talk to anyone, and without having to haul a bunch of packages to the post office. Wouldn't that be nice?
Consider the following, which is how it works here at IMC:
- Customer fills out secure online order form at our site.
- Customer's credit card info is verified and processed.
- Customer's money is deposited into our bank account.
- Customer's order info is stored in our online databases.
- Customer's membership account is created immediately.
- A receipt and welcome message is emailed to the customer.
- A confirmation of the order is emailed to the IMC office.
All of that is done automatically, normally within thirty seconds, at a total cost of just a few dollars for the credit card processing fees. If we sell an IMC membership for $200, that's a profit margin of approximately 10,000%. And it takes us exactly zero seconds to process all of the day's orders, whether we make one or one hundred sales. Over 95% of our orders are processed this way, eliminating hours of work daily.
Our close friends and relatives still don't believe it, but we really do make money 24 hours a day, every day, whether we're working, sleeping, at the beach, or whatever. We don't say this to brag, but rather to give you an idea of what's possible. If you're still searching for that "perfect" product to sell, seriously consider one that fits the above model - one that can be delivered electronically at low or even no cost.
Even if your product or service can't be fulfilled electronically at zero cost like ours are, you'll still benefit tremendously from accepting orders directly from your web site. For one thing, it's guaranteed to increase your sales if implemented correctly - unless you sell a really high-ticket item or something that just isn't purchased "sight unseen."
Sure there are still some people who have reservations about buying things online, and security is still an issue, but it's not nearly as bad as some would have you believe - and as each day passes the reluctance to purchase online is slowly disappearing.
If your product has to be mailed to a customer, there's a good chance that you can use a fulfillment center to automate most of the process. In fact, unless you're selling hundreds or thousands of items, we strongly suggest that you look into it. Generally speaking, a fulfillment center will simply keep a supply of your product or products on hand at their location - and send them out to your customers at your request.
Rather than you hauling a carload of packages to the post office every day, you would setup your web site to email the fulfillment center a copy of each order as it's placed. They'll ship all of your orders, and email or fax you a report at the end of each day.
If you're selling any type of product or service from your web site, you absolutely must automate the entire process from start to finish. Sure it might cost a few extra bucks to set it all up, but it's well worth it. Remember, there are only 24 hours in a day and you need to spend as many of them as you can on marketing your business - not processing orders, filling out paperwork, or going to the post office.
The Secure Socket Layer Protocol
Before you can sell anything from your web site, you'll need to reassure your visitors that it's safe for them to purchase from you online - and you do this by implementing what's known as a "secure" order form or shopping cart at your web site.
The industry standard is SSL, which stands for Secure Socket Layer. In English, it's just a secure protocol that uses encryption technology to ensure your customer's financial information is safe from prying eyes as it travels through cyberspace.
Don't worry about the technical details because you don't really need to understand how it works. You just need to make use of it, either by enabling SSL on your web server or by using someone else's secure server to process your orders. By far it's much better to make your own server secure, it just costs a little more upfront.
There are many web hosting companies which will host your secure order form or shopping cart for a low monthly fee, but we don't recommend it. If you go this route you'll be giving up control of a very important part of your business - for no reason. Aside from the other minor inconveniences, if their system goes down you can't process any orders. It just opens the door to potential problems that you don't need.
For about the same amount of money, normally between an extra $0-20 per month, you can enable SSL on your own web server and have total control over everything. If you selected a quality web host, they can provide you with this service. The only thing you'll need to do is get yourself a "digital certificate" and you get one of those from either VeriSign (http://www.verisign.com) or Thawte (http://www.thawte.com).
They are about the same, but Thawte is about half the price - and we've had no problems with them at all. Another reason to consider using Thawte is that their current certificates are "Y2K" ready, whereas VeriSign certificates expire in 2000 and users will need to update their browser to access these pages.
Once a signing authority such as VeriSign or Thawte issues your digital certificate, you simply give it to your web host and they will install it for you - and you're ready to go. You'll then be able to make any of your web pages secure simply by using https instead of http in the URL. Visit our order form for an example.
Of course, for your secure online ordering system to do any good you'll need the ability to accept credit cards. The overwhelming majority of online purchases are made with a major credit card, and to be perfectly honest with you, you won't sell squat if you don't accept them - Visa and MasterCard at the very least.
If your credit isn't perfect and your bank won't give you a merchant account, there are many firms which specialize in establishing them for Internet-only businesses or those with so-so or even bad credit. We are researching them now and will post an update just as soon as we can. In the meantime, be sure to perform your due diligence when selecting one because there are a lot of shady deals out there.
One last thing. Don't even waste your time adding an order form or shopping cart to your site if it isn't secure. 95% of your visitors won't use it. And you'll be doing a real disservice to the 5% who do. Besides, silently telling a potential customer that you really don't care if their credit card information gets stolen is not a very good idea.
Once you've implemented a secure environment for online ordering, you need a way to actually process the orders - and the more you can automate the process the better. This is one of those times when CGI scripts prove to be real handy.
As far as processing the credit cards, you have a decision to make. You can either collect the customer's information and process their credit card manually, or you can get setup with a real-time processing company and it can be done automatically.
We use and recommend Anacom (http://www.anacom.com). At $25 per month and 25 cents per transaction, it's well worth it considering that it'll take you at least five minutes per order to do by hand. 12 orders a day and you just saved yourself another 30 hours of work per month.
There are many companies that'll do this for you. CCNow (http://www.ccnow.com) and Cybercash (http://cybercash.com) are also quite popular. Just be sure to read the fine print.
Once payment information is collected and processed, all that's left to do is ... well that's really up to you. Using CGI scripts you can simply store the customer's order information on your server so you can retrieve it all at the end of the day. Or maybe you'd like everything emailed to you. Or better yet, you can design a fully automated system like ours. Or anything in between. It really depends on you, your business, your products and services, and your chosen method of fulfillment.
Originally published in IMC's Internet Marketing Chronicles.
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