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Author: Chuck Lasker of Merchant Tutorials
So you have an online store. This morning, you woke up, checked your email, approved tasks for your vendor partners to perform today, and an hour later you were on the beach, relaxing to the sound of waves crashing, planning the rest of your day in paradise.
That’s not what happened? But isn’t that the dream that got you to build an online business in the first place?
Most of us now realize that this may never happen to that extreme. Reality is probably closer to this: You woke up, spent 2 hours on emails, 5 hours packing and shipping orders, 3 hours working on your site, and 4 hours doing paperwork, all the time looking longingly at the photo of the beach on your wall.
Is it possible to get somewhere between those two extremes? It sure is. You can outsource every part of your process that you don’t like, that are too time consuming, or that you are not very good at.
As an ecommerce consultant, my advice has always been to “do what you do best, and hire out the rest.” Take a look at a typical retail store. If you open a wild bird store, you’re probably an expert on birds, not building display stands. So, you hire someone to build your store, create your signs, install your carpet, plumb your bathroom, and paint your walls, so you can concentrate on finding the best suppliers, negotiating deals, ordering inventory, etc. Once it’s all set up and you’re selling wild bird products, you probably have a lawyer, an accountant, one or more stock people, sales people, and a cleaning crew.
A Web-based business is basically the same, except online business owners tend to spend their time on activities that feel important, instead of outsourcing so they can do what is truly the most productive with their time. This is the main reason most online businesses never make it past hobby-stage. Truly successful ecommerce store owners outsource as much as possible.
The most common outsourced task is the creation of the online store in the first place. Creating an online store requires three areas of expertise; design, coding and usability. Often one consultant can do all three. You could “save” money by learning everything yourself, but unless you’re committed to becoming an expert, your site will probably be less than profitable. I equate it to installing a heat pump, where you’re better off with a professional than doing it yourself. Mistakes in Web design can cost you in search engine positioning, usability, cross-browser errors, as well as complete crashes down the line when you no longer have time to deal with them.
To find help, look for consultants who have done sites within your industry, check references, and find out if their clients are making money. Remember, a pretty site does not necessarily mean a successful site. Amazon and eBay are hideous. What matters is a usable site, so look for designers experienced in helping their clients convert sales. A great place to start your search is the Miva Merchant Community Forums. Here is the URL for the “Work for Hire” section that allows you to post your needs and request quotes:
When you hire a consultant to create your online store, you have the future benefit of someone who can fix inevitable problems quickly. Since they spend all day every day within their niche, they can also make recommendations that you hadn’t known were available. For example, Miva Merchant has over 2,000 third party modules available to add functionality for as little as $20, but it’s difficult to know which one is the best option without experienced help.
If you invest in hiring an expert consultant, listen to him or her! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been paid thousands of dollars for help, only to be directed by someone with no experience in ecommerce to do things I knew were a mistake.
Once your site is up and running, don’t let it get out of date. One reason the Internet is so successful is the ongoing improvements in site capabilities. Keep your eye on your competitors. If your main competitor starts to offer gift certificates, you may want the same functionality. You’ll need to decide again whether to learn everything you need to implement the new functions, or to hire an expert. Often it’s cheaper to hire someone than take the time away from more important tasks to learn it yourself. For Miva Merchant, most module developers have affordable installation options.
Do you spend more than a few minutes a day on data entry? This is another function online store owners waste time on. Not sure? Ask yourself if you are doing data entry yourself because you have to, or because it makes you feel like you’re doing something productive. People can be found for this at extremely low rates, especially part time. Check with your local college or high school.
When more than a few orders a day start coming in, you’ll find organization can be difficult. You’ll juggle order information in Miva Merchant, probably QuickBooks for bookkeeping, a UPS computer for shipping, an email system for customer communications, and whatever system you use for returns. Sooner rather than later, you should look for order management systems to help. Some systems, like Stone Edge Order Manager (www.stoneedge.com), do just about everything. However, wouldn’t it be wonderful to not deal with any of this? Yes, you can outsource order fulfillment and customer service, too.
If all goes well, you will eventually get enough orders that you’ll probably be cluttering up your kitchen table, frustrating your spouse, and wondering why you did this in the first place. This is an excellent time to look at fulfillment companies. They range from small quantity specialists to large companies that can process hundreds of orders a day. When searching, look for a company already set up to work with your order system/shopping cart. Be sure to ask around and get references before making a commitment. My favorite article on outsourcing for Miva Merchant stores is:
When your phone rings, are you answering the same customer questions over and over? There are many companies that specialize in customer service functions, such as answering questions, taking orders, and processing returns. Some companies will even work with your online chat system, if you have one. If you go with a customer service vendor, call them on a regular basis, acting as a customer, to be sure your customers are being handled properly.
If your store has been online for more than a few weeks, you’ve probably gotten a telemarketing call from a so-called Search Engine Marketing firm. While you need a professional who stays up-to-date with ever-changing rules to get serious results, there are so many SEO (Search Engine Optimization) scammers it’s easy to get ripped off. If you choose to do this, be sure to contact their clients for references, search for comments about them on Google, and never sign a long term contract. Watch for the word “guaranteed,” since nothing can be guaranteed in the search engine arena. Another way to find a company is to find noncompetitive online stores that are getting great results and ask them if they’ve hired a company they’re happy with. Finally, check Miva Merchant’s own SEO program as Miva Merchant has special considerations for SEO.
The next step after natural search (getting higher in the free areas of search engines) is PPC (pay-per-click) advertising. Search Google for “Google Adwords.” This is fee-based advertising on search engines which charge for each click on your ad. This is an area where you can burn thousands of dollars experimenting and still not get profitable results. I know of one company owner who spent $1.5 million across two years and he has no idea if it worked. Google has a certification/training program, so a good start is to search for a certified “Google Advertising Professional.” As with SEO companies, research anyone you plan to use.
As you can see, the best way to find vendors for outsourcing is to ask around. Online store owners are usually very glad to share and recommend, often actively promoting their vendors because they’re so happy. When you’re checking references, though, ask each reference if they know of someone else who also uses the vendor. This way you can speak with clients the vendor isn’t giving out as references. Do the research up front, and your experience will be much happier. Then, after you’ve outsourced everything but what you love, you can spend more time at the beach, living the dream.