Fall cleaning Web style

In case you haven’t noticed, the lazy, hazy days of summer are over.

Like it or not, it’s back to business as usual. All those tough business issues that you put aside in favour of barbecues and cottage evenings are suddenly front and centre again – and more pressing than ever. No doubt, concerns about your e-commerce initiatives are near the top of the list.

With that in mind, CxO.ca recently asked several Canadian Web technology experts what the average, mid-sized Canadian businesses currently selling goods or services over the Internet can do right now, and with relatively minimal effort and expense, to make their e-businesses run better. Here’s what they had to say:

Mel Webb

Keep it simple, says Mel Webb, president of the Association of Web Professionals and vice-president of business development for Poptronik Entertainment Inc., a Toronto-based entertainment commerce company.

“The simple thing is to know who your customer is and your target audience and what they want,” he says. “And the way you do that is to keep getting feedback from them. The Internet is designed by its very nature to gather and get that kind of feedback, but companies just don’t spend the time to do it.”

The feedback companies get from their users is invaluable, Webb says, and should not be ignored. One way to gather that data is to create a voting or survey engine on its site that gathers feedback from the people visiting.

“Putting a voting engine or a survey up is very cost-effective,” he says. “It’s available from third-party developers and they give it away as open source code. And as long as the content is compelling and you ask the right questions, you can definitely get that up there and done quickly and cost-effectively, and gather valuable information you can use to build a better site.”

According to Webb, although the Internet uses advanced technology with all the bells and whistles, that doesn’t mean being simple should lose its importance.

“There are a lot of sites out there…that are too complex and too complicated,” he says. “The Internet is a medium where you’re only a click away from your competitor and if your site and what you’re trying to achieve online is not simple, if the message isn’t simple, then you’re going to quickly lose your audience and your customers.”

Dale Gass

Ensuring a company’s e-business runs better comes down to one basic thing – hiring good people and treating them well, says Dale Gass, CEO of Pantellic Software Inc. in Halifax, creator of PhotoPoint, an online photo-sharing site.

“If you want to have your e-business solution created efficiently, absolutely you’ve got to make sure you’ve got the right people with the right talents who are happy and motivated to create the solution,” he says. “It’s challenging (finding the right people) and they’re a little hard to find, but they’re out there.”

Enthusiasm and a strong willingness to learn are attributes to watch for when hiring employees, Gass says.

“I’m more inclined to hire somebody who will take to learning a couple of different e-commerce packages very quickly than I am just hiring somebody with experience in one,” he says. “It is a rapidly changing landscape and what the proper solution six months ago was might not be the best solution now. Having somebody who can adapt quickly to the changing and evolving technologies really helps. If there’s a new technology or a different technology that comes out that lets you create your solution more quickly, and if you have people who can adapt to that, it gives you a lot more flexibility than having somebody with just experience but no flexibility.”

James Crooks

If a company is connected to the Internet, it’s at risk, says James Crooks, risk management services at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Vancouver.

He would like to see companies beef up their security by keeping their patches up-to-date and well maintained. The problem with the Internet is that companies can get scanned and people are always looking to see if they are vulnerable, Crooks says.

“Depending on where you’re connected and how you’re connected, you may be scanned twice a day on average or 20 times a day,” he says. “If you don’t have maintenance on your system it’s not ‘are you going to get hit’, it’s ‘how soon’?

“Now, if you’re running an e-business…that whack may be as simple as defacement. And if you just get defaced you’re lucky because it’s just your reputation you’ve lost. But the problem is you can get credit cards stolen and maybe even worse than that. There are guys out there who will try to extort money and say, ‘I’ve got 10,000 of your customers’ credit cards and I’d like X thousand dollars,’ for example.”

Crooks admits it’s not cheap to keep up with maintenance, but it’s generally those who choose not to that get hit.

Although a patch doesn’t guarantee somebody isn’t going to find a vulnerability and get to a company before the patch is out, it improves a company’s chances for security, he said.

Phil Cohen

Companies would do well to remember that customers have little patience for Web site glitches, according to Phil Cohen, senior analyst at Toronto-based market research firm IDC Canada.

That means ensuring all facets of the e-business are working well, including the graphical user interface (GUI), customer support, logistics planning, and that all other systems – both IT and non-IT – run with the overall e-business strategy in mind.

“If a user has difficulty using the site they won’t use it as often and they will resist adapting what they have to do to use that site,” he says. “Statistics show that if users of an Internet site are frustrated once, they may come back. But if they’re frustrated two or three times, there’s very little chance they’re going to come back.”

Browsing a Web site has to be an easy experience from start to finish, Cohen says. Any hitches along the way can conceivably hinder the whole business from expanding and growing.

“It’s a first hurdle in a way, and then once customer experience or user experience is down to more of a science, it will still be considered important but it won’t be such a priority anymore,” he says. “So it’s much like how we don’t pay attention to how our telephones work these days – we assume they’re going to work and we don’t worry about it.”

Deline Comeau

Companies should be focused on what they’re trying to achieve when selling products online, and how they’re going to support their customers’ buying needs and preferences, says Deline Comeau, regional client delivery executive, E.solutions bluesphere at EDS Canada in Toronto.

“First, and most importantly, talk to your customers, understand their issues, and investigate opportunities to support their purchasing style, their expectations, and their current experience when dealing with your company on the Web,” she says. “It’s important to try to stay objective. Their perceptions on how well you’re servicing them might be different than what yours is, but ultimately it’s their perception of the experience that counts.”

As well, Comeau says, talk to employees who deal with your customers on a daily basis because they are a goldmine of information.

“And they’re usually very enthusiastic about any initiatives that will help improve or better support their customers,” she says.

“I also think it’s important that there’s consistency between your current sales, your distribution channel, and your Web site so that throughout the buying cycle you’re able to assist that customer. It’s important that all areas of your organization that deal with the customer understand what your Web strategy is, especially when it comes to filling products online.”

Tom Vassos

Tom Vassos, e-business manager at IBM Canada in Markham, Ont., and a professor at the University of Toronto in the MBA program who teaches Internet marketing, advises companies to rethink their e-business reach and strategy.

“So often companies with their e-business strategies focus just on the Internet piece reaching the 400 million people out there when they might be getting a much bigger bang for their buck and being more successful with a much smaller reach of a few customers or a few suppliers,” he says. “So for example, this much smaller reach tends to involve creating a semi-private extranet of just determining what your top customers need. In fact, some companies when they’re building their e-business strategy think of it right down to a customer of one. What does my one top customer need from me to do more business with me, to get better customer support, et cetera? So it’s a very targeted customer-of-one approach and then you duplicate it for others.”

According to Vassos, in a lot of cases companies don’t have the right balance in investments between intranets, extranets, and the Internet, in that it’s almost instantly a 100 per cent Internet-type strategy. Companies need to rethink that balance, he advises.

Ash Abhyankar

Keep it simple and interactive so it’s easy for a person to use, says Ash Abhyankar, director of sales, marketing and business development at Teldon International Inc. in Vancouver, which supplies products for corporate customers, including personalized calendars.

“You’ve got to keep it simple, especially if you’re really going to build on it in the future,” he says. “[People] use the business-to-consumer Web sites for booking hotel rooms, for example, and they find the ones they tend to like are the ones that are simple and which remember them from before. You’ve got to go back to the basics before you can do any other sexy stuff.”

Some suggestions, Abhyankar says, are to ensure fast downloads over 28.8Kbps or 56Kbps telephone lines, minimize heavy use of videos and multimedia, and allow easy access to toll-free numbers for support.

But Before You Start, Make Sure It’s Legal…

Your company recently hammered out an agreement with another as part of a technology arrangement, and you can’t wait to tell the world about it. Press releases shoot out, detailing all the benefits the partnership will provide your customers. You’re on top of the world.

You’ve also just made a very big mistake.

Lisa K. Abe is a partner with Toronto law firm Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP. She’s one of a growing number of technology law-specialists popping up across the country. According to Abe, there’s no shortage of companies trying to make their mark in the world of online business. But that sense of urgency often leads to an inattention to detail. The result, said Abe, is many companies routinely leave gaping legal holes in their business plans.

Take the use of the word “partner.” The tech sector abounds with companies that team with one another in search of strategic advantage – an arrangement often dubbed a partnership. However, use of that term is enormously risky, Abe said. “If you are a partner with someone else…in most cases you are liable for whatever your partner does,” she said. “Call it anything but ‘partners.'”

It’s irrelevant how the two parties refer to each other in private or in a written contract. It’s what they tell the world that matters, Abe said. Unwittingly declaring a partnership can be problematic; if one the parties issues a defective product that injures someone, the partner can be made liable. “There’s a risk that an injured party will sue you,” she added. “And there’s not a lot you can do to back out of it.”

Or maybe your partner has a page littered with the logos of its various corporate associates – including yours. By allowing that to happen without any controls attached, companies may be hurting their own trademark claim to that logo. “You have to be careful if you’re the one getting your logo used that you have a proper trademarked licence. Otherwise, you could be diluting your own trademark rights.”

Trademarks and terminology are just two of the many legal problems businesses encounter during their e-commerce projects, said Abe. In fact, it’s a problem she sees every day.

Abe said the pull toward IT happened when clients started coming to her with technology-related problems – something which, at the time, she wasn’t familiar with. “I started getting more and more clients that were coming to me that were software developers…but the Internet wasn’t that big yet,” she said. “Gradually, it evolved and when the Internet starting becoming popular, things pile up in terms of e-commerce and Internet-related (issues).”

Today Abe is one of Blake, Cassels & Graydon’s full-time information technology lawyers, a position that’s left her with little free time, she noted wryly. “I haven’t seen the economic slowdown. I’m sure it’s out there.” She regularly speaks and writes on the issue, and recently wrote a book on the topic, Internet and E-Commerce Agreements: Drafting and Negotiating Tips.

Despite her sizable client roster, the problems she encounters tend to boil down to a few fundamental issues, Abe said.

One of the biggest is intellectual property. Companies regularly sign agreements with an Internet service provider for Web and e-mail connections. Although such arrangements appear straightforward, they can be fraught with legal peril. “Even when it sounds like a pure services contract, there are underlying intellectual property rights issues that need to be thought out,” Abe said.

The first problem is content. Everything on a Web site, be it pictures, logos or text must be cleared to make sure posting it does not infringe existing trademarks. Perhaps a service provider will give a client access to third-party software that it hosts. If so, Abe recommends ensuring the license arrangements allow both the company and any of its customers to use the software. “You want to make sure you can actually use this product or service,” she said. “You could be infringing someone’s rights.”

Another legal issue to consider is jurisdiction. “Companies often forget [Web sites] are not the same as an office in Toronto,” she said. “You’ve opened up a store in every single country. The risk is, you could be subject to the laws of every single country.”

In that sense, operating an e-commerce site is no different from acting as a worldwide exporter.

“There have even been cases where Canadian courts will enforce foreign judgements,” she noted.

Even if a site isn’t selling something, it’s still subject to foreign laws, Abe added. To avoid getting into hot water, Abe suggests firms make visitors agree to terms and conditions, which will stipulate, among other things, where you are based and which laws you are following.

But most importantly, companies need to slow down and cover all the relevant legal issues before they decide on a course of action. Said Abe: “Small business can’t wait to grow, and they sometimes overlook these issues just for the sake of closing the deal.”

Karen Hall is a Burlington, Ont.-based freelance writer who specializes in technology issues.