As a value-added reseller, you undoubtedly know your way around technology. But is your company using Web technology wisely to attract prospects and help retain customers? A site doesn't need to be bristling with bells and whistles or cutting-edge technologies to be effective. A proper site will convey the full breadth of your company's offerings and capabilities, and build confidence that you are the VAR of choice in your marketplace.
Here are five principles for making your site more useful and customer-friendly.
Getting to Know You
When potential customers visit your site, the first thing they'll need to know is who you are and what you do. This might seem obvious, but many VAR sites either leave visitors guessing what the company offers or inundate them with a barrage of technical statistics that confuses at best and at worst sends them running to other vendors.
Remember that you have a very short amount of time to grab users' attention and motivate them to action. The quicker you clearly articulate the nature of your business and its offerings, the better the chances that a prospective customer will become an actual customer.
TELTEK Systems (www.telteksys.com) does an excellent job of grabbing attention. At the top of its home page, you'll learn that: a) the company is one of Adobe's top Premium Value Added Resellers; b) its value proposition lies in combining low cost and high levels of service; and c) it offers third-party products that complement FrameMaker and other Adobe products.
On Your Road
VAR sites tend to be complex, given the multiple services and products they typically offer. That's why it is critical to provide outstanding navigational aids to visitors.
A simple solution to the navigation problem is to provide a hyperlinked map that reveals the major sections and pages on your site. A useful map will contain enough information for users to find their way around the site. If the map is too spartan top-level pages only it won't provide much assistance. Likewise, if the map drills down six layers and reveals every nook and cranny of the site, it won't be of much use to anyone either. Remember not to subject users to information overload. If you have an extremely complex site, you can provide sub-maps within the major sections that reveal deeper content levels. An additional benefit of mapping your site is that you'll quickly catch any illogical flows or missing links. Another plus is that the user can get an instant "satellite view" of your offerings.
For a good example of how a VAR can deploy a site map, visit Prophet 21 (www.p21.com), a solution provider for customer-intensive wholesale distributors. The "Site Map" link on the home page takes you to an easy-to-follow schematic that displays all major sections and top-level pages.
A clever alternative to the traditional site map can be found at the TECSYS site (www.tecsys.com), where users navigate by means of a Java-based, Explorer-like interface that expands and collapses to reveal different levels of detail. The navigational interface remains locked in a frame as the user visits various pages.
Create a VAS -- Value-Added Site
Visitors to your site will be looking for more than an electronic brochure. So, just as you add value to the products and services you sell, add value to the site by providing information useful to prospects and existing customers. This provides an incentive for customers to spend more time at your site and bookmark it for future visits. Plus, it serves as another means of differentiating your company from competitors. You might, for example, offer the following low-cost, high-return information premiums:
* Free newsletters that offer practical insights. TELTEK Systems offers visitors the opportunity to subscribe to an electronic newsletter that offers tips and tricks for using Adobe's FrameMaker.
* Notification of industry-related events. Novadigm, a provider of automated software management tools, maintains a current list of trade shows on the home page of its site (www. novadigm.com). Customers can learn more about the event by filling out and submitting an information form.
* A white paper discussing a new technology or the projected growth of a new market sector. TECSYS does just that, offering visitors a free copy of a report on supply chain management, which was conducted by a third-party market research firm. To receive the report, users fill out and submit a form, after which they can download the text or request hard copy via standard mail. The information given on the form not only triggers a delivery mechanism for the user, but provides valuable leads for the company. (Note: White papers should be offered in both word processing and Adobe Acrobat formats to accommodate the needs and capabilities of every user.)
* Proceedings from a conference, symposium, or other event. One company, TIBCO, which sells real-time infrastructure software, sponsored an event called "Strategic Directions '99 Conference: Becoming an E-Corporation." Visitors to the TIBCO site (www.tibco.com) can view streaming media highlights as well as the speakers' PowerPoint presentations.
* Educational opportunities. TIBCO sponsors a variety of courses designed to help programmers and administrators who use TIBCO solutions. The course schedules and locations are available on the site, as are registration forms.
Whatever you decide to include, just remember that it must have value: "Throwaways" don't count in a world where high-quality information is readily available.
Show, Don't Just Tell
Nothing speaks louder than examples of your successful solutions in action. Customers' voices can be a powerful endorsement that you do indeed add value in the reselling process. Consider adding case studies or success profiles to your site, as REALTECH Systems Corp. (www.realtech.com), a provider of integrated network solutions, has done. Each case study uses a consistent format ("The Customer," "The Problem," "The Solution," "The Benefits"), making it easy for visitors to understand the value that REALTECH has brought to the customer.
A word of caution: If you do provide case studies on your site, you'll need to perform an information balancing act. If the case studies are too vague, they won't bolster your credibility and help close a sale. If they're too detailed, people won't bother reading them. Solicit opinions from outsiders before you go public with the stories.
Meet the Press
Does your company issue meaningful media releases? If so, create a virtual pressroom or press center. The pressroom should summarize each media release in a sentence or headline that hyperlinks to the actual documents. A robust collection of press releases indicates that you're a VAR on the move, not a passive vendor.
If you receive favorable press coverage, be sure to provide a link to the article (find out if this is okay with the news organization first; you might also seek permission to republish the article directly on your site). One of the goals of your site is to establish credibility with potential buyers. In part, you accomplish this by providing content that underscores your expertise. But there's nothing like press to help build an image. If your company or its products and services have enjoyed positive media exposure, then offer access to the specific articles.
Finally, as you consider new features for your site, do a reality check by first asking yourself if the enhancements and their execution would benefit customers. Then get an outsider preferably a customer to offer an objective opinion before you invest the time, money, and technology in making the change.