Designing an effective web site for a brokerage agency begins with traditional web site guidelines and then leverages other web sites and technologies to achieve the greatest possible advantage for the agency. Traditional guidelines like clear objectives, quick load times, registering with search engines, and attractive, appealing design are a prerequisite of any site development. In the following, we examine broker specific web site objectives and the tactics for achieving those objectives.
If the time horizon for your business' strategic planning is in the range of two to five years, your plan must include that manufacturers and customers will adopt automated ordering technologies at a dramatic rate. As a result, the perception of order taking as a customer service will be diminished and sales agents that don't otherwise add value to the distribution channel will be disinter mediated. Use your web site to solicit new lines and customers and to enhance your agency's value by providing customer relationship management (CRM) services.
An important element of the web site resume is in the Keywords tag line that your visitors generally do not see but is referenced by search engines. Search engines like Yahoo, Infoseek, Excite, and Altavista use these words to match user inquiries to relevant web sites.
Encourage consumers (end users) to visit your site and review product information other than prices. This is just another opportunity to promote your vendors and customers. When a consumer sees a product they are interested in, tell them where it can be obtained. Your customers will appreciate the referrals and potentially sell more of your products as a result.
Use your site as a forum for customer feedback. Setting up a form for submitting complaints or problems is an efficient way to document these concerns for remedial responses. This may also serve as a buffer for your customer to vent a problem when your agency would not otherwise be open for business.
If however, you have a product line with 5000 products where pricing is customer-specific and orders occur as a process, development costs will be higher. For wholesale orders, inventory may take a prolonged period, budgeting may require that the order be amended, and prices may be awarded according to volume or other customer qualifications. In this case, your site should allow them to work off-line and to modify the order. This can be done in a couple of ways. Your site might offer the user an electronic order sheet that is limited to customer-authorized items so that they can work on the order off-line and e-mail it back to you at their convenience. This model should allow for the addition of new items. Another alternative would be to allow the user to disconnect and then to return to the order-in-progress when they reconnect.
Expand your territory
Although you must negotiate this with each principal, some maintain a the one that gets the order gets paid policy. Just as they may pay you a reduced commission for orders that are placed directly, the converse should be true for orders you take on behalf of someone else's territory. Communications technologies like the Internet have little relationship to geographic boundaries so this issue should be addressed with your principals as to what they would be willing to do for you in regard to referring leads and accepting orders.
The strategies above may be summarized into three general categories: Marketing, improvements to customer service, and generating revenue. To calculate the return on your investment you will need to consider your research and development costs, maintenance, and your cost of capital (how much it costs to borrow or could earn in an alternative safe investment). Because the Internet is still new, costs vary dramatically. Some sites spend millions, while others spend nominal amounts. You can get a basic home page with most Internet service providers that is included with your monthly fee. Adding interactivity, taking orders with a database backend, and generating revenues will increase your development costs.
While there is the tendency to go slowly to avert risk, the alternative risk is that Internet technologies have the potential to be very powerful and move very quickly. If your competition develops this technology before you do, traditional early follower strategies may not apply and you may get left behind.
The Internet is an exciting frontier that will make extraordinary fortunes for some and leave others in its wake as flotsam. If you think you can delay reviewing your strategies and tactics for dealing with how it will influence your business, you may be relegated to the Willie Lomans (Death of a Salesman) in the near future. Consider that unlike the Industrial Revolution, the influence of the Internet is growing at an exponentially faster rate with the investment of hundreds of billions of dollars!
At the very least, you should obtain and register a domain name for your company and setup a basic electronic business card site. There are several free web hosting alternatives available, a great way to just get started.
As the next step, you should consider offering dynamic features based on the needs of your customers. These come at a higher price however, there are now several off-the-shelf alternatives available that are adequate for a limited product selection with only one price for each product that use the shopping cart model.
If you are considering replacing or adopting order management software, be sure that the software you will use can also be used as a back end for your web site development. Some increased cost here can avoid the costs of keeping a separate database synchronous with your office database. Databases that use encrypted or store in proprietary formats are not recommended because web developers find it difficult to post and retrieve data to and from these sources.
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