It is a rare reseller that, with hand on heart, can say: "My business has nothing to do with e-business, never has and never will."
E-business, or e-commerce, as it remains to those sensitive of appearing trapped in a late 1990s timewarp, is so much a part of everyday business life that it is sometimes hard to spot how pervasive it has become.
Driven by massive broadband uptake and hugely improved technology, e-business has, in the past couple of years, come to seem almost a redundant term since, certainly at enterprise level, it is an invisible part of how all business is done.
It is certainly far too late, as a reseller, to call yourself an 'e-business solutions provider' and hope that makes you sound a bit flash.
"I think that the most important thing to realise about e-commerce is that so many aspects of it are no longer leading-edge," says Phil Rothwell, managing director of Actinic.
"E-commerce has moved beyond the point of being a differentiator. It is not so much a competitive advantage to have an e-commerce solution in your portfolio, but it is an enormous disadvantage if you don't."
Rothwell says basic, if essential, e-commerce services, such as domain name registration, site hosting and even payment processing, have become so commoditised that there is little money to be made unless resellers can add value of a far higher magnitude.
"Adding value boils down to one easily quantifiable thing," he says.
"It's about building a site that generates orders for your customer. Blowing their budget on interesting functionality and fancy design won't achieve this. Sites have to be search-engine-friendly, and this can't be achieved until you understand how your customer's customers go about ordering online."
It's no longer a case of staying ahead of the game, but about keeping up with competitors, agrees Des Lekerman, managing director of Eurodata Systems.
"E-commerce should be a vital part of every organisation," he said. "It has evolved into more than just a web site and an online ordering mechanism. Our solutions work on expanding the corporate network, engaging with partners and extending customer services via the internet."
So how does a reseller keep abreast of the pervasive e-business environment they effectively need to be in to survive?
Rothwell says that while many available e-commerce solutions, including his own, are off-the-shelf, such systems cannot provide integration with the multitude of applications available, from stock control to business management packages.
"These kind of integrations will be increasingly in demand, and only the channel can provide them," he says.
Mark Cross, product manager at aspidistra.com, a Microsoft software development house, says resellers looking for a profitable and margin-rich e-commerce opportunity can benefit by targeting individual market sectors where there is potential to change the way 'offline' businesses operate.
"Imagine a medium-sized travel coaching company offering trips around the UK and Europe that is currently serving customers in a small area of Kent. It probably uses a bespoke Unix or DOS booking system without any web integration.
"Its business could grow through being online, but it would need to integrate its databases if it wanted to avoid real logistical problems. Such business scenarios create opportunities for resellers to advise on a solution, implement and then maintain," Cross says.
Rather than waiting for businesses of this kind to approach, resellers should be proactively advising them about how e-commerce solutions can help them grow, Cross adds. "Team up with a partner who can talk about the business benefits of the products they offer and can support the reseller," he says.
Cross's thesis assumes there is still a large pool of lo-fi businesses out there still awaiting an introduction to how the internet can benefit them.
He is certainly right, but it is a shrinking pool and many resellers will be asking where the demand is coming from for second or even third-generation e-commerce adopters. What are they buying, when, and from whom?
Shamus Kelly, managing director of NetInfo, advises a staged approach to such prospects. "Customers today aren't building everything at once," he says.
"They're not saying, 'Let's do e-business today.' They are doing it in phases and stages now. They've got past being scared into thinking they need to do everything by Q4 or die. The fear and uncertainty factor was certainly played up by vendors in the early e-business days - unashamedly so."
Only fools rush in
Being hasty does nobody any good, be you a user or a reseller, says Tony Price, managing director of Microsoft partner WStore.
"The danger is still that people will rush into e-commerce adoption without considering what their expectations are. That's one way of ending up with a system that's a hindrance, where customers adopt extra processes to take e-commerce on board.
"It should be a cost-saver, and I'm not talking in terms of the base purchase price, but the costs associated with making a purchase," he says.
Price adds that the most common customer driver is cost-savings, backed by the proviso of minimal integration costs into an existing purchasing and IT hierarchy.
Matthew Goulden, business development director at Trio Networks, charts some of the ways today's e-commerce buyers have moved their demands up a gear. He also considers how many still fall short of their initial aspirations.
"Every web site should be well designed, easy to navigate, legally compliant and so on - that goes without saying," he says.
"Those corporations with a strong e-commerce presence, or dealing with high-value information or content services seem to understand the basics. Yet too many fail to consider the bigger picture.
"How can they possibly deliver a best-in-class service online if they're not monitoring exactly what their web users are actually experiencing every time they visit?"
Goulden says a poor experience with an organisation's e-commerce or information service is not only damaging to its reputation and brand but can easily repel potential customers.
"Online customers in particular have very high expectations of service. That means fast browsing, easy navigation, slick processes and optimum uptime. It's crucial to be alerted if or when parts of an online operation fail. Is it certain geographies, download speeds, ISPs, or page content that are causing visitors to abort?"
Goulden adds that a reseller that goes beyond the mere provision of a basic solution to being able to advise at this level will always find customers.
Fiona Coughlan, managing director of Macromedia Northern Europe, agrees that despite the e-commerce market's supposed maturity, the mediocrity of many solutions currently in use is harming the overall reputation of the sector, as well as making the climate for those selling solutions much more difficult.
"The complexity of today's e-commerce applications, combined with the poor level of interactivity offered in the browser, remains by far the greatest impediment to delivering an engaging user experience," she says.
Creating a richer experience
Coughlan claims that the design criteria used to define the current generation of web applications needs to be extended to define a new benchmark for interactive experiences: experiences that are seamless, focused, connected and aware.
Rich internet applications, as she calls them, will provide the next generation of interactive, engaging and intuitive online experiences, taking the e-commerce market to the next stage of its evolution.
"There is much evidence to show organisations are taking steps to improve usability and branding on their e-commerce sites to increase conversion rates and profitability," she says.
"Most of the changes are related to the transaction flow and performance improvements, which have some impact on improving usability. However, real differentiation and competitive advantage is achieved when you can provide proactive customer services that can visually guide consumers to products that match their requirements."
Rich internet applications, she says, provide an experience far closer to a traditional retail environment than has been possible before on the web, where customers can select, compare and filter product choices interactively, where customers can communicate with product specialists using real-time audio and video, and where businesses can provide proactive customer service to help consumers purchase products and services that match their selection criteria.
"Vodafone has successfully realised the benefits of a rich internet application in Germany to provide an interactive and visual 'handyfinder' application, enabling customers to research, compare and select mobile phones based on their individual preferences," she says.
According to Cross, a customer's e-commerce inefficiencies offer a perfect entree for the services-focused reseller. "We find that many businesses with an e-commerce web site waste time manually entering online orders into their back-office accounting, order processing and stock control systems," he says.
"Clearly this makes the online offering cumbersome and costly for the business. We are about to launch a product that will help solve this problem for many UK SMEs."
This touches tantalisingly on what might well be the next big wave of e-commerce solutions: those focused at the smaller business. Forget for a moment the whizzy start-ups of the dot com era.
The largest untapped e-solutions market is surely the SME that has hitherto slipped under the radar of enterprise-class e-commerce resellers, and remains in relative or even total ignorance of the web's relevance to them.
The situation faced by Cross's fictional Kent-based coach business is replicated across hundreds of similarly old-school businesses. E-commerce may not have left many resellers untouched, but many of their potential customers remain in a limbo of blissful latency.
Actinic (0845) 129 4800
aspidistra.com (01548) 856 583
element 5 (49) 221 310 880
Eurodata (020) 7619 1500
Macromedia (0131) 458 6766
NetInfo (01628) 687 800
Trio Networks (01784) 497 361
WStore (08700) 113 310
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