Secrets of the e-commerce elite

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It’s still one of the best-kept e-commerce secrets, but FedEx Corp. was wise to it nearly eight years ago.

Even before the Internet boom, in 1994, the shipping titan used the programming equivalent of duct tape to connect the Web site to the company’s mainframe package-tracking system. Through a deceptively simple interface, corporate customers were able to help themselves to information about where their packages were by typing a tracking number into a form.

Since then, the $20 billion company has avoided having to hire thousands of customer service reps, and FedEx has become widely known as an Internet pioneer. Yet, even today, few companies have learned that b-to-b e-commerce isn’t about flashy marketing materials and trying to shove more products down customers’ throat. "It’s about practical customer automation," said Michael Schween, FedEx’s director of e-commerce marketing.

Other successful b-to-b marketers agree. On the GE Plastics site, outside engineers can design virtual prototypes of plastic casings and components, calculate the cost of manufacturing those parts and collaborate with other engineers using a secure, shared workspace. These features have handed the $5.2 billion General Electric unit 10% more prospects, according to the company.

"We think there’s a lot of business we wouldn’t have gotten were it not for the e-tools," said Beth Pearson, the GE unit’s global e-business services manager.

In one case, GE Plastics secured an order for 500,000 pounds of materials from a new engineer at one of the Big Three automakers after a GE salesperson was able to determine the engineer’s needs based on his activity in the site’s virtual modeling tool, Pearson said.

Kinko’s, the printing and copying company, in December launched a service that lets businesses store presentations, marketing collateral and other computer files on a Web site. So instead of producing and storing large numbers of marketing brochures for its entire sales staff, a company can produce the brochure in smaller numbers as needs arise.

What’s more, regional salespeople can customize the materials with their own information and binding preferences, and zap them to a local Kinko’s outlet to be produced.

"In the old Kinko’s world, we’d just be the print solution. This enables us to do many more things for you," said Dipanjan Chatterjee, Kinko’s director of product management.

You can learn a lot from this elite group of b-to-b marketers.

Dont sell everything under the sun

Resist the temptation to cash in on those great site demographics and charge for extra services. You could turn customers off and distract yourself from your main mission, these executives say.

Indeed, no one in this group charges for their online services, though they have thought about and even tried it.

GE Plastics looked at charging for its online seminars, attended by some 10,000 people last year. But executives decided that trying to wring revenue out of a new service would only undermine the main goal of the site: to create a lasting, collaborative relationship with the customer.

"We determined that our proposition was value for the customer, not creating a new product," said Amelia Burkhart, global manager of

FedEx’s Schween agrees with GE’s position. "We tried some other things at, but where we have been most successful is where we offer benefits that surround the core FedEx experience," Schween said.

Kinko’s may ultimately charge for DocStore but only if it can do so without undermining its main business, Chatterjee said. "We’re looking at pricing schemes, but our goal is always going to be to facilitate new printing," he said.

Use Big Brother tactics

Collect customer information—lots of it.

Skeptics spoke up when GE Plastics decided to make registration mandatory two years ago, just as the Net privacy debate was heating up.

"It wasn’t a widely accepted practice, and customers didn’t want to be bothered," Burkhart said. But GE pressed forward anyway because it knew the site would be a powerful source of qualified sales leads.

And it has paid off. In the first two months of mandatory registration, GE learned that in cases where it was already doing business with a particular company, it only recognized one in five of the individuals at those companies. The other four represented brand new sales opportunities, Burkhart said.

Kinko’s lets corporate customers set up their own rules to define who can place orders and who can approve them, but not until a Kinko’s representative visits the customer in person. This gives the customer a personal contact and the salesperson a fresh sales opportunity, Chatterjee said.

Kinko’s estimates that about 70% of its sales come from businesses.

Keep user interface simple

Users should be able to find what they want quickly and easily.

GE Plastics applies the two-click rule: All content must be accessible in just one or two clicks. The trick is to make sure there are many ways to get to a particular page, Burkhart said.

For Kinko’s, effective design means making its business look simple to outsiders. "This isn’t like Amazon selling books," Chatterjee said. "Books are easy to grasp; you know what they are. Printing 65 copies of spiral bound reports, of which 20 pages are color, is more complex,"

In a store, an agent handles it all. Online, Kinko’s walks users through a series of menus to pick paper quality and other specifications, and help icons provide a short primer when clicked. "A customer can send in an online order with minimal knowledge of how to print a job," Chatterjee said. "Simplicity is the axiom of Web development."

Get tons of feedback

Find out how people use your Web site—and what they think could be improved.

Every upgrade goes through intensive usability testing before launch. GE Plastics conducts focus groups and even has a formal customer advisory board dedicated to the Web site. And Kinko’s blends information from focus groups with third-party quantitative research.

"Different research tools are good for different things," Chatterjee said. "Focus groups aren’t good for pricing, because what people say they will do is very different from what they will actually do."

Develop a comprehensive marketing plan for the site

Make sure you don’t rely on a single tactic to reach potential customers.

Much of these sites’ success can be attributed to viral marketing—happy customers telling other customers, and so on. But they also rely on an assortment of other methods.

GE Plastics demonstrates its online capabilities at industry shows. It also actively promotes the site in the news media. Kinko’s relies on salespeople and print advertisements. And FedEx provides a 10% discount for using its Ship Manager online application to print labels and arrange a pickup.

From those humble beginnings in 1994, has converted those rudimentary Perl scripts into a package-tracking application used by some 2.5 million people each month. Maybe one day soon, FedEx’s secret about practical customer automation will get out.

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