If you’ve been running an e-commerce site for awhile and been lucky enough to watch it grow, one of the things you may have noticed is that your workload doesn’t stay fixed as sales increase. In fact, there are times when doubling sales may triple (or more!) your workload. This is the time when you should start looking at ways to increase your productivity, or the productivity of your website itself.
To that end, here is a list of some of my favorite add-on software that goes beyond the shopping cart. As you review features and costs, consider how much money your time is worth. Can you better spend that time on tasks that can’t be as easily improved by software – for example, sales or marketing? If so, these tools may be great investments.
- Order Management Software – If your sales have grown beyond a few orders a day, or if you have to manage backorders or drop-shipped orders, you may benefit from order management sofware. I covered this briefly back in February in the post titled “Using Order Management Software“. Once integrated, this can be one of the easiest ways to stay organized. It also helps with data mining (for example, to see how much you make or lose on shipping costs).My favorite? Shipworks by Interapptive is simple and powerful.
- Site Search – No matter how many card sorts and usability studies you perform (“yeah, right?” you might think!), the categorization on your e-commerce site will never been good enough that some customers don’t find the need to use your search form to find products. Most shopping cart software packages offer basic search capabilities. But when you need to do more, look outside – to hosted search solutions. They tend to offer more features and do a better job converting sales. Recommended: SearchSpring for being incredibly feature-rich while remaining reasonably priced. They also offer a 30-day trial.
- CRM Software – Getting a new customer is much harder than keeping an existing one. So don’t run the risk of ruining your reputation – even among an audience of one – by failing to follow-up on customer service requests. Handling customer service by email can be dangerous. If multiple people handle service requests, they may not know who’s covering which problems, or what has been done in the past by a different CSR. Add on a CRM system to handle these issues. I offer two recommendations in this category: InverseFlow (updated 7/18/11 – the website no longer resolves), a helpdesk ticket system, which I love for its simplicity; and SugarCRM for all of the features it offers.
- Email Marketing – Often, email blasts can have a great return on investment, as you have a targeted list of people who are either previous customers, or who have not bought yet but have already shown interest in your site. But it’s good practice to outsource this task, not to handle the email distribution in-house. Email marketing companies specialize in using best practices related to email handling, staying on top of important issues such as CAN-SPAM compliance. You also don’t want to run the risk of having your own email servers blacklisted if you do something incorrectly when sending out your newsletters.There are a number of hosted solutions for email distribution, at a number of price points.The two I’ve known about the longest are Vertical Response and Constant Contact. However, the ones I’ve used more recently are actually among my favorites in this section. For lower budgets, I like iContact. It’s easy to use, fairly easy to integrate, and reliable. For those who have a larger budget, I recommend Bronto.com for their additional features, particular their reporting and analytics functionality.
- Accounting – Most of us probably started out handling our “books” with nothing more than our checkbook register and Microsoft Excel. But once is enough when you have to prepare your income tax statements based on nothing more than these tools and a box of receipts and statements! This is when it becomes a really good idea to invest in an accounting package (and a file cabinet). For most small businesses, this means Quickbooks. Quickbooks tends to be one of the easier accounting packages to get used to, and because it’s so widely used, there are often “connector” software tools that can get data from your shopping cart into Quickbooks. In the software, you can reconcile your accounts, send invoices , issue credit memos, and so on. And come tax time, it makes life so much easier. Businesses that go beyond the “hobby” status – especially if you’re looking for investors or want to sell the business down the road – should consider Quickbooks Enterprise due to its audit trail and additional security features.