Monthly Archives: July 2005

Holiday/vacation time but what about your online business?

For many of us, it is time to start thinking about packing our suitcases and jetting off on our summer holidays/vacation.  When I had a ‘normal’ job, this was a time to get out of the office and completely forget about work for a couple of weeks.  Things are somewhat different now though as an Internet business never sleeps or takes time off so how do you handle your online business when you are supposed to be soaking up the sun on a far away beach?

Obviously if your business is large enough to have employees, you shouldn’t have too many problems and can, hopefully, leave things in the capable hands of your staff for a week or two.  But in the event that you run a ‘one man band’ and don’t have anyone to reply to emails and deal with orders while you are away then I am afraid it is down to you to look after things.

So with this in mind, here are a few ideas that may help to ensure that your vacation remains exactly that.

1. Close your website down for the duration of your holiday.  For me this goes completely against the grain – one of the advantages of an online business is the fact that it can earn you money whilst you sleep (and whilst you sunbathe).  However some business owners do simply decide to shut up shop when they go away and write off a couple of weeks income against a stress-free break.

2.  Find a local Internet cafe.  For many people this is probably the easiest and most affordable option.  Most tourist destinations have some level of public Internet access available at a reasonable price.  Last year I even managed to get a half decent Internet connection on a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean!  The main downside in using Internet cafes is security.  I have never been completely comfortable entering important passwords into public computers and have often ended up using two or three Internet cafes in the same resort and changing passwords on a daily basis!  Slightly paranoid perhaps but it only takes one dishonest cafe owner to really put the spanner in the works…

3.  Take your laptop and connect via the hotel landline.  Most hotels have an IDD (International Direct Dial) telephone in their rooms.  This means you can dial straight out of the hotel without having to go via the switchboard.  This being the case, you can hook your laptop up and dial up just as you would at home.  The cheapest way of doing this is to do some research first and find a local Internet company that can offer ‘pay as you go’ dial up – don’t dial into your home ISP as this will cost you dearly in international call charges.  Be aware that not all countries use the common RJ11 phone socket and you may need to purchase an adapter socket.  These are readily available on the Internet – just search Google for ‘modem adaptor socket for (your destination)’.  You should also check that the phone line you are about to plug into isn’t digital – if it is, you could fry your modem.  Ask the hotel reception or better still, get a tester unit that plugs in and checks the line for you – these are cheap and could save you a lot of problems.  Whilst using dial up in this way is very convenient, it can be expensive (hotels are notorious for making huge profit on phone calls) and it is likely the connection will be very slow.

4.  Take your laptop and find a wireless ‘hotspot’.  Wireless networks are becoming more and more popular and you will find them in many airports, hotels and resorts.  As long as you have a wireless network card or a wireless-ready laptop, you can simply turn your laptop on and access the network at super-fast Broadband speeds.  You will normally have to pay for access but you can usually buy unlimited access for the period of your visit.  If you really don’t want to pay and have time on your hands, try turning on your laptop close to offices, an Internet cafe or some coffee shops – you never know, they may have a wireless network set up with no security meaning you can logon for free!  This is my favourite way of accessing the Internet abroad – it is fast, affordable and I can use my own computer with all of my own software which makes it very convenient.

5.  Use your laptop with a mobile/cell phone.  Not an ideal option but if you are somewhere really remote it might be your only option!  Remember that different countries use different cell phone frequencies so you need to make sure that your phone will work in the country that you are visiting.  In order to keep costs down, sign up with a local phone service provider and a local ISP – this means that you will pay the lowest call charges possible (though they will probably still be pretty expensive).  Connection speed is likely to be appalling but this might work for you if you are only expecting a few emails…  Personally, this option became unworkable for me several years ago – too slow and far too expensive.

6.  Use a laptop/PDA/Blackberry or similar with a GPRS connection.  GPRS is a wireless technology which allows PDAs and similar to have an ‘always on’ connection in a similar way to Broadband.  GPRS is provided via the local mobile/cell phone network.  With GPRS, you pay not for the time that you are online but for the amount of data that you transfer.  This means that if you set things up correctly you can just download your email headers, delete the ones that you don’t need to read and then only download and reply to the important ones.  Therefore costs will be kept to a minimum and it doesn’t matter if the connection is slow (from a cost point of view at least) since you are only paying for the amount of data you transfer.  Speeds should be quicker than a normal mobile/cell phone connection.  Ensure you check that GPRS is available in the country that you are visiting – most common destinations can offer the service but you may find that some more remote countries are not yet GPRS enabled.

Most important of all – enjoy yourself!

Automating your customer support…

My regular readers will know that one of the things I highly recommend doing with any online business is automating as many of your day to day tasks as possible.

From a personal point of view, one of the tasks that takes up a lot of my time is answering emails.  It isn’t just answering email that eats up the hours – sorting through and deleting spam and junk mail absorbs a lot of time too.  In the good old days, I used to get a couple of spam emails a day. Now it is closer to 1000 a day!

In fact, when you look at it, email isn’t always the best form of online communication.  Not only is there the junk mail issue to contend with but also the fact that email is not 100% reliable.  Emails do ‘go missing’ far more regularly than you might expect.  Often this is simply because the recipients email software has decided that a particular email is junk and has transferred it directly to the ‘Delete’ folder.  Other times it may be because the recipients ISP has decided that the email is junk and deleted it BEFORE it has even been seen by the recipient!  (Yes this really does happen – imagine if your postman sorted through your mail and made the decision of which letters you want and which ones he should throw away?!)

One way to help avoid the spam problem when dealing with customer support enquiries is to make use of a contact form on your website instead of posting an email address.  This will certainly help to cut down on spam but it still means that you have the problem of emails not getting to their destination (and when you have a frustrated customer waiting for assistance this is not ideal).

Therefore, probably the best option on the market presently is a full-blown helpdesk system.  Setting up a dedicated helpdesk is a superb way of automating your customer support and speeding up the process of dealing with enquiries and support emails.  Not only that but if you use a system that allows customers to create ‘tickets’, you don’t have to rely on email as your customers can login to a special web page and view both their tickets and your replies online.

Another feature of many helpdesk scripts is an ‘FAQ’ or ‘Knowledgebase’ section.  This is simply a collection of the most frequently asked questions/queries/problems along with answers and solutions.  This means that customers can search the knowledgebase and hopefully find the answer to their question without having to contact Support at all. 

Some of the more advanced scripts will even scan the customers support ticket prior to submitting it and then list a few possible answers to their questions just in case they didn’t read through the knowledgebase before typing the ticket out – very clever stuff.

These scripts are also very powerful in terms of how they can benefit you. Just think how much time you could save if, say, 40% of your customer support emails just stopped coming due to the fact that your customers were now able to find the answers to their questions automatically.

Having an online helpdesk is also of benefit if you travel around a lot or if you are away from the office on vacation etc.  Instead of having to take a laptop loaded up with previous emails from customers, you can simply login to your helpdesk admin page and all of your previous correspondence will be online and at your fingertips.  It also means that you won’t have to spend hours in an Internet cafe deleting a days worth of spam at a time just to get to the important emails since only the important emails will have made it through to the helpdesk in the first place.

As with most things, setting up a customer service helpdesk is one of those tasks that is always better done when you first start your online business.  That said, it is fairly easy to integrate such a feature into your existing set up and that is exactly what I have done for some of my websites…