Tightrope: A good website is a great asset

— -- Every now and then I feel compelled to remind you of how important maintaining a website can be to your business. If you have a site that's not giving a return on your investment then perhaps it's time to rework it. If you have been procrastinating about having a website, now is the time to get one.

Recently, during my regular checkup at the chiropractor, our conversation turned toward his favorite hobbies — bread baking and traveling. He told me several years ago while traveling through Michigan, he happened upon a corner deli that made wonderful 8-grain, 3-seed bread.

Since that discovery he had tried to duplicate the recipe but to no avail. So he frequently traveled to Ann Arbor to stock up on what he called "the best and healthiest bread in the world."

I asked him if he had tried looking up the company on the Internet. He admitted he had not. I enjoy good food and particularly good, homemade bread. And with that in mind as I was leaving, I jotted down the name of the Michigan company he had talked about.

The next day I checked the Internet and in no time the home page of the company rolled onto my screen. Just as my chiropractor had said they described themselves as a single-location "corner deli" that offers everything from homemade bread and exotic vinegars to pastries.

Their online store gave me the option of ordering online or calling their toll-free number. I decided to call. A very pleasant and informative woman took my order and gave me details on how to freeze bread until needed and restore it to freshness. She took time to tell me about the other breads available and how best to serve them. Her attentiveness led me to order 3 loaves of 8-grain 3-seed, 5 loaves of other breads and a sour cream coffee cake. Within 48 hours Federal Express delivered the bread.

The company, Zingermans, is among the scores of small businesses in America that have distinguished themselves by making quality goods available to consumers across the globe through their website, while still serving their local community, in this case, Ann Arbor.

Zingermans.com provides a good example for building a website for fun and profit. If you are thinking about developing a website or want to update your current site, here are a few lessons I learned from my visit to their site.

Accessibility. Being able to locate your company by a domain name that is the name of your business makes it easier to find you.

Update content regularly. This is easy to let slip by. Keep your info as up to date as possible.

Make the user experience easy and enjoyable. Site visitors should not have to play hide and seek when visiting your website. Icons should clearly state where things are. It's frustrating to have to search each page looking for a phone number for customer service.

Customer service is the lifeline of a successful business. Respond to e-mails immediately. And avoid using annoying automatic e-mail responses.

Each and every entrepreneur wants to get his goods and services to as many people as possible. And when handled properly, a website can lead to that goal.

As we move through the current economic crunch, we will need to use all resources available to us. I will continue to look at other successful entrepreneurs who can share their advice for the growth and sustainability of your business.

Gladys Edmunds' Entrepreneurial Tightrope column appears Wednesdays. Click here for an index of her columns. As a single, teen-age mom, Gladys made money doing laundry, cooking dinners for taxi drivers and selling fire extinguishers and Bibles door-to-door. Today, Edmunds is founder of Edmunds Travel Consultants in Pittsburgh and author of There's No Business Like Your Own Business, a six-step guide to success published by Viking. Her website is www.gladysedmunds.com. You can e-mail her at gladys@gladysedmunds.com.