Open All Night

It's 2 a.m. and a hot prospect wants what you have to sell. Where are you? In bed, hopefully'¦but you could still be serving your customers. The Web affords unprecedented opportunities to give 24-hour, global sales and service -- like the big guys do, but on the cheap. In fact the Web should be your best salesperson, your best service person, and your best marketing person. But most businesses, a decade after the Internet revolution, have not even skimmed the surface of leveraging this incredible medium.

No matter what industry you are in, you can use the Web to improve how customers interact with you. Making the Web an avenue into your company will eliminate manual processes such as order-taking and invoicing. It will allow your customer-service reps to concentrate on solving problems instead of giving status reports. And it will let customers explore your product offerings on their time and on their terms -- to your benefit.

If you are a product company such as a retailer or distributor, the beginning of the solution is a Web storefront. Even if you are selling to a relatively fixed set of customers, giving them the ability to browse your product catalog and build up an order themselves is bound to increase customer satisfaction. And the tools for doing this are more powerful than ever. Today's software gives you unprecedented abilities to expose your product catalog with real-time pricing and inventory status, and have orders flow seamlessly through to your fulfillment operation.

But don't stop with the order. Make sure you have a self-service portal where order status, package-tracking information, and suggested upsell items are available. Use email marketing to reach customers and entice them back to your site to place new orders. Let them get authorization via your site to return merchandise -- if their return experience is positive, they are much more likely to come back and buy again.

Service companies might be tempted to disregard the Web if they aren't shipping goods a la Amazon. But here's a fact: More clients than ever are using the Web to find services. If your prospects can't find you from a search engine, you are giving up loads of potential sales. A sharp looking Web site optimized to be located via search engines, along with some carefully chosen keyword advertising, could bring a host of new opportunities to your door. Once at your Web site, online forms can make it easy for customers to give you their information for later follow-up.

The overall experience of dealing with your company can be greatly improved via your Web site -- whether it be the ability to ask a question or report a problem anytime, anywhere; see order or trouble-ticket status; and even to get a statement or pay outstanding invoices. If the latter doesn't make customers happy, it will at least improve your collections.

Emerging technologies are giving smaller companies new ways to expose themselves to the Web masses. Blogs -- free-form Web sites that are updated frequently by an individual -- can give the latest product or service information to your most loyal customers, keeping them in the fold. You can even produce an RSS feed -- a constantly updated list of news-like items -- highlighting your latest promotions. which the "inner circle" of your customer base can place on their personal home pages.

No matter what industry you are in, spend some time and even a little bit of money honing your Internet image. Clean, professional-looking sites are like modern, well-lit stores -- they make people want to come back. And branding is as important for your company as it is for the big guys -- a good graphic designer can make your Web site or store look like a million bucks for a lot less.

If I sound a little like a snake-oil salesman it's because I am a true believer -- so many of our customers at NetSuite are quickly making themselves into sophisticated, global companies by concentrating on their Internet presence. One of the beauties of the Web is that with some resourcefulness you can make yourself look much bigger than you are -- and soon you might be!