For most people who are running any type of online business, a major goal is to be scaleable and to grow their business without adding to their workload. The dream is often to live the flexible life of the digital nomad, the person who is able to make a reasonable living by working in their own time and traveling wherever and whenever they please.
A major component of meeting this wish is how well you build systems to either completely automate tasks, or to simplify them and make them easily replicable. Anything that is systemised and documented is able to be passed onto someone else to deal with, allowing you more freedom as the business owner.
That being said, here are some tasks your ecommerce business should be automating now.
Managing inventory and ensuring that you have stock available for purchase is a big job if you haven’t put good systems in place. Ideally, you want to have your inventory updating and reordering automatically when stock reaches certain predetermined levels.
There are a number of inventory management systems available for ecommerce stores, so here are a few things to look for when choosing one:
- Do you sell across multiple channels? Many ecommerce store owners sell in more than one place to increase exposure and sales, but are using the same pile of inventory to stock each. In this case, you need an inventory management system which will sync across your various channels.
- You want synchronisation to occur automatically and in real time.
- Integration across different warehouses if you use more than one for fulfillment.
- Consolidated view of inventory sold in each store.
Software such as Saleswarp, Stitchlabs, Veeqo or Finale Inventory are good options for inventory management across multiple channels.
Dropshipping tends to involve much smaller margins on products as they are sent to customers directly by the vendor or vendor’s agent and the seller isn’t required to purchase inventory first. However, if you have enough traffic coming through, it’s a great way for the digital entrepreneur to be more hands-off.
There are a few tools available to help you be more hands-off with managing inventory; Spark Shipping is a good one for any dropshippers out there, and also integrates other functions like fulfillment and order tracking. It will integrate with major ecommerce platforms like Shopify and Magento.
For dropshipping of hard-copy versions of information products, vendors like Kunaki or Corporate Disk Company are set up to create retail-quality products from recordings or designs that you provide to their websites. Products are all made-to-order so there is no warehousing required.
The aim is that you should never have to pick up the phone and talk to a customer or manually do any work to accept payments in your ecommerce business. There are a number of different payment gateways available to help you automate the payment process, so here are some considerations before picking them:
- Does the gateway operate in the country/ies where you want to sell? Sometimes you may need to offer more than one to accomplish this.
- Is it easy for your customers to use?
- Do you want a payment gateway, merchant account, or all-in-one payment system?
- What are you looking for in fees and contract terms?
- Does the payment gateway integrate easily with your website?
- Are you a “high risk” business? Some industries, such as gambling, diet, travel and adult content are considered high risk, which means some payment options won’t want to work with you. In this instance, you will need a specialised provider who deals with high risk industries.
- Does the payment gateway support preferred payment methods of your customers? For example, some are limited as to which types of credit card they will accept.
Some popular options for payment gateways include Paypal, Stripe, Braintree, and Paymill.
If you do need to use multiple platforms and want a centralised way of looking at your payment streams, Quaderno integrates with several payment streams and gives you an overview in one place.
If you need tax calculations at checkout, such as for VAT payable in the EU, that is another thing you want to make sure your checkout process can automate. Again, this is something Quaderno takes care of with automatic calculation of appropriate VAT and issuing of invoices.
Sometimes people are reluctant to talk about automation in customer service – it can bring up negative experiences with impersonal phone menus and inappropriate canned responses. However, automation or semi-automation through having processes in place can be good for the business if done right.
Your reputation can be on the line with every customer service experience your customers have, so if you don’t have the manpower to keep up timely service in person, automated solutions can have a positive impact by providing customers with quick responses to questions.
Online customer service providers tend to run on some version of a monthly subscription model and have tiered rates depending on the level of service you require. They largely work by operating a help ticket system where an actual person has to get back to your customer when they submit a ticket.
Your role is to provide the support desk with as much information as you can and answers to FAQs so that hopefully they are able to provide an immediate answer. At the very least, if they need to clarify something, they will still get back to your customer quickly and explain that, while their ticket has been received and acknowledged, they will need to get back to them with an answer later.
“Live chat” is a feature available with many of these online support desks and can also help to provide a better customer experience. For ecommerce businesses, live chat can be a powerful tool in the shopping cart so that customers who are unsure can ask their questions. This can help trim back cart abandonment rates.
Popular solutions include Help Scout, Zendesk, and Groove.
Having FAQs set up on your website is a good way to reduce the need for customers to contact you with questions. It’s a simple solution to a common problem and is easy to set up. You can create these manually yourself, or use a tool which will help customers to sort and suggest FAQs. For WordPress websites, plugins such as Instant Q & A or Templatic do the job well.
Fulfillment of orders is another aspect of ecommerce businesses that can take up huge amounts of time if you don’t have an automated solution in place. You don’t really want to be warehousing, picking, packing, and shipping orders yourself, so a fulfillment house is a great solution to automate the process. Some fulfillment houses are also able to provide you with an all-in-one solution which includes inventory management as we discussed in the first section.
What should you consider when looking for a fulfillment solution? Here are some thoughts:
- Location of their warehouse/s. You will need to pay for inventory to be shipped to them, so the closer the warehouse to your supplier location, the cheaper your shipping costs.
- Their charges – it will always cost you more to use a more convenient solution. (Though fulfillment houses tend to be able to get better shipping rates because of their bulk requirements).
- Level of service – for example, will they put your branding on packages? Do they offer a returns service?
- Do they integrate with your ecommerce platform so that the entire process is automated from when a customer orders?
The more hands-off a solution will be, the better it is for freeing up your time, but you will need to balance that with your required margins.
Accounting And Bookkeeping
It’s a common theme among business owners that many simply hate having to keep up with accounting and bookkeeping tasks. Make life easier for yourself by automating everything you can in the accounting field, and you will also make your accountant’s life easier at tax time.
There are a number of accounting systems available now, but ideally you want one that seamlessly integrates with your payment systems and business bank accounts. This way it will automatically pull in data on your revenue and expenses and provide you with good reporting. Xero and Quickbooks are popular options for accounting tools.
Another thing to look out for is a system to save your receipts which you need to keep to claim expenses. Some accounting programs have a system built in where you can scan and save receipts, but if not, try a separate app which will integrate with the accounting software. This saves you from losing them or having boxes of faded receipts. Shoeboxed and Receipt Bank are good options to try.
Refunds And Returns
Every ecommerce business will need to process returns and refunds at some point, and this will be a lot less time-consuming if you have a process in place. First up, you should have a documented procedure so that any customer service staff know what to do and hopefully don’t need to contact you for approval.
Secondly, have a well-crafted return policy that is clearly documented and easy for your customers to find. Studies show that customers look for and can be reassured by a clear policy on returns. This can also save additional queries coming through to customer service.
Lastly, look for an automated returns system. Shopify’s Returns Manager is one example of a system which allows customers to request returns online, but as mentioned earlier, some fulfillment houses will provide returns management as part of their services. Quaderno also has an option for processing refunds.
If you want to create an ecommerce business that will allow you to have time, freedom, and a lifestyle of your choosing, automating tasks that can be time consuming is the way to go.
There are more tasks you can automate, but the six mentioned – inventory management, payments, customer service, fulfillment, accounting and bookkeeping, and returns – are standard business operations which you will find in most ecommerce businesses.
Before choosing any tools to help you out, know what requirements you are looking for so that you will have an easier time comparing the many options. Once you have a good system in place, your business should largely be able to run without you.