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The Internet Requirements of a Small Business

Why does a small business need to bother with the Internet?

It is now the rule rather than the exception for even a small business to have an email address. People wondering which business to use will even use the presence of a web site address as a criterion of size and quality even if they do not visit it. Regular Internet users, which means many of the more desirable customers, will check a web site before taking time to visit a business they do not know. This means that a business definitely needs to have an Internet presence as soon as any other competitors in the area have one and it is possible that they could gain a competitive advantage by being first.

In particular a good site will extend the geographic area from which one draws customers. This is particularly true of specialist areas where the potential area from which you could expect to draw customers is larger than economic to use conventional advertising and the distances are such that a customer is unlikely to make a journey without further research. It is equally true of services where visitors to the area need advanced information to prepare. Accommodation is an obvious example and many overseas visitors search out and book theirAccommodationn over thAccommodationet. Time differences and costs make email preferable to telephone or even fax. Leisure interests are also a potential area where visitors to the area from within or outside the country are likely to seek information in advance.

A good web site and email are still valuable even if one receives significant business through guide books or business directories as it enable the potential customer to check you out before making a visit, booking or order. The customer will inevitable have to make choices and the more information he has the more likely he is to follow it up.

There is of course another side to this - it costs money, takes time and may distract one away from more important matters. You may have to do more yourself as there may only be one computer or ones staff may not be familiar with computers or email. There may well be problems over access to data and you may well have staff records, financial information and personal material you want to keep private. The benefits must outweigh the costs over a sensible time scale.

It will do more harm than good if you go into it half heartedly - people who use email (or fill in forms on the site) expect a much more rapid turn round than with a letter and there are no excuses like it's in the post. You need to check several times a day and respond rapidly - if you can not answer quickly you need a brief response as a holding action saying when they will hear.

What form should your Internet presence take?

You will be judged on certain things before a customer even thinks of sending you an email or accessing your web site. These judgements will even be made by those who are not regular Internet users themselves. The customer will look for a professional set up rather than somebody who plays at home but fortunately it is easy to make the outside appearance satisfy such criteria.

Email address: Firstly potential customers will look for an email address which looks like the big firms they know rather than what they have at home for free. Addresses with Freeserve, AOL or CompuServe are not what they are looking for however good the service from such providers may be. They are looking for an address like information@your-firm.com or orders@yourfirm.co.uk and a if it is a specific person they expect something like peter.curtis@thefirm.co.uk or pcurtis@their-firm.com ie. give an impression that you have to use the initial or Christian name to distinguish staff. Even an address like peter@pcurtis.telinco.co.uk will not fool them the extra dot is the give away that you are a little fish playing in somebody else's pool.

If you are small or you are just starting with an Internet presence with perhaps only a single connected computer it is convenient to limited the number of separate addresses you set up with the ISP. Many ISPs allow you to set up a default email address to which any unspecified name before the @ is forwarded. If you start off without specifying any or many specific addresses it makes it easy for one person to pick up mail and deal with it. This way you can look big to the outside world but avoid the overheads internally.

The URL: The web site address is if anything more important than the email address and in most cases it will use the same domain. It must be your own address and related to the business or the service you provide - http://www.yourfirm.com http://your-firm.co.uk etc. and be something they can remember or find easily. The www is often not needed with your own domain name and I think that looks even better. They will know that you are using somebody else's (probably free) service if the domain looks like http://www.yourtinyfirm.freeserve.co.uk , slighty worse is http://www.telinco.co.uk/tiny-firm/ and they are even less likely to rate http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/fred-in-a-shed/ worth a visit . I am not talking about the speed and reliability of the services - I use Freeserve and Telinco (now taking new users under the name Tiscali following a series of takeovers) myself and rate they highly as you will find in other technical articles - I am talking about perceptions and perceptions are what determine whether your potential customers go to you or to fred-in-shed just because he is trading as everywhere-in-england.co.uk.

Electronic Business - Orders over the overdetermined

There are several distinct levels of Internet presence - the first is to have communication primarily by email, the second is to have a web site to inform your potential customers and the third is to extend you web site so you can carry out business directly through the web site. Electronic business can be as basic as taking bookings for activities using a credit card or extremely complex like having full on-line shopping from a complex catalogue with on-line validation and debiting of the credit card. This site covers the former and gives the guidance to ensure that you can in due course extend your activities towards a full e-business.

Secure equines Transactions: If you are going to do any business directly you need to not only make sure that your email and web addresses are well thought-out but you also need to set up good and visible security on the appropriate areas of your site using standards which customers can understand and use. This means having the appropriate level of Digital Certificates to identify you as a legitimate trader and SSL (Secure Sockets Layer protocol - the de facto standard for the interchange of secure data between web sites and browsers) installed on your web site server.

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