As nature abhors a vacuum, so business abhors an under-used channel of sales. The wildfire expansion of the web means that most products and services, including yours, will be sold online. Forrester Research forecasts that, by 2003, the 'B2C' (business-to-consumer) trade in goods over the web will swell tenfold to £67.5 billion, whereas 'B2B' (business-to-business) product sales will exceed £800 billion. And you planned to sit this one out?
The interesting question, then, is not whether your company will sell online, but whether it will do its online selling direct to the customer or through the intermediaries it has traditionally used, many of whom will be coming online as well.
Those who sell direct over the web stand to benefit in several ways. They can gain access to wider - indeed, worldwide - markets. They open a direct connection to their end customers that provides intimate insight into their needs and thereby the chance to meet those needs more competitively. And they usually enjoy savings in marketing, sales and distribution costs that can be shared with their customers.
Sounds good? Cisco, Dell and Schwab make it look easy. But think again.
To make direct-to-customer sales successful online, you'll need to manage seven tasks with masterly finesse.
Develop a web interface. Backed by a significant IT investment, this should be comprehensive, adaptable and simple for customers to use. It should also be connected up to your back-end production network.
Draft a new marketing strategy. You'll need to draw customers directly to your site, which means diverting them from their current shopping venues.
Make full use of the web's tools. Stay on your customers' radar screens by ensuring your visibility via every search engine and intelligent agent.
Forge new customer management strategies. Make use of the rich flow of incoming data about your customers' behaviour. You'll need to deliver superb and, in many cases, customised service around the clock, because now there's no middleman to do it for you - or to hide behind.
Anticipate new competitors. The web reduces barriers to entry for new suppliers from anywhere in the world - and scale is no longer a major advantage for marketing, sales or distribution.
Make your company's store front ubiquitous. Nest it within the sites of the zillion 'new intermediaries' developing new market niches throughout the net (see last month's column).
Brace yourself for conflict with your old-world intermediaries. Traditional channels will, of course, fiercely resist your efforts to go around them and pass cost savings to customers. Obviously, the only thing that doesn't abhor an under-used sales channel ... is another channel.