Going Local

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted October 01, 2000
by Liz Levy

Just about every type of business has a site on the Internet to showcase its wares or sell its products or services, those that exist on the service side of things face different challenges than companies that sell products.

While "e-tailers" are primarily concerned with the selling and shipping of physical goods, local service companies are looking for ways to attract new clients. Many of these service providers are based locally and primarily do business with customers in their area.

So, how can these businesses, from car washes to dentist offices, use a Web site to drive in additional business and revenue like the "e-tailers" do?

They can start by adding a few sophisticated features to their Web site that put it far beyond a simple electronic brochure. While it may not be possible to sell the service over the Internet, there are other things businesses can provide to customers that will add value and, in turn, drive additional revenue.

SHARE AND SHARE ALIKE

As a service company, the more information and assistance you can provide to your clients, the better. Posting easy-to-access information, whether it's specific to your company or not, makes the customer better educated about purchase decisions. This can build loyalty.

One technique for adding value to Web sites is to create a mini-portal. The portal can include topic specific search engines and links to related Web sites.

SearchButton.com fits this bill with their CommunitySearch service. This hosted service allows businesses to create online communities of linked Web sites that are fully searchable from your site. The visitors can search the contents of your site only, or they can search across all of the sites in the collection you create. The links can be used to expand the information available to customers, as well as establish partnerships with other Web sites.

"Today's consumers are used to convenience," says Darcy Fowkes, research director for the Aberdeen Group (www.aberdeen.com), an IT consulting and research firm. Businesses should make it easy for users to find what they are looking for, even if it's something you don't offer. Affiliating with other Web sites creates a mall-like experience that customers can appreciate."

SearchButton provides activity reports so you can see what kind of topics visitors are searching for most. As a hosted service, whenever a change is made to the content on your site or one of the partner sites, it is immediately updated in the search engine.

MAKE IT EASY

For salons, doctor's offices, and the like, doing business by appointment is the norm. There are tools you can add to a site, which give customers the convenience of booking appointments online. This is a very tangible, useful tool, and an ideal way to increase functionality.

Xtime's Scheduler is a Web-based scheduling system. It allows businesses to accept new appointments, confirm appointments via email, build customer profiles, and access an online appointment book hosted on its Web site. Customers can book appointments online based on your hours of business, 24 hours a day. After making the appointment, they receive an automated e-mail confirmation. Close to the appointment date, the service automatically sends an e-mail reminder which also discourages no-shows.

The sign up process if fairly simple. Just enter your hours of operation,
services offered, and number of employees. The Xtime Scheduler is hosted within your existing Web site. The service costs between $50 to $100 a month. Customizing the appointment book to match the look of your Web site and adding a logo will cost extra.

STAY CONNECTED

When dealing with businesses that offer a wide array of services, such as caterers, or those who sell a high-priced service, such as law firms, customers like to do a lot research and ask questions. If they can accomplish this before making the effort to drive to your place of business, you may win them over. Incorporating customer response tools can make the site a viable selling tool for starting negotiations and even closing deals. It could also be what sets you apart from the competition.

Extreme Detailing Inc., a four-person company based in San Diego, specializes in professional detailing services for high-end automobiles. Their Web site (www.extremedetailing.com) is used to promote their services and attract new customers. Mark Leisher, the owner of Extreme Detailing, wanted to have a Web site that could be used as a selling tool for his services. "I wanted to able to tell people in passing to visit our Web site, rather than handing them a paper brochure," he says.

Leisher hired a local Web consulting firm, iNetReady (www.inetready.com), which deploys sites for small businesses in Southern California.

Timothy Faasse, head of development and design for iNetReady, incorporated a customer call-back service from RealCall on the Extreme Detailing site. The Alert service from RealCall places a small button on the site that links to Leisher's pager. When a customer clicks on the button, a screen pops up where they may fill in their name, phone number, and e-mail address. When the form is submitted, Leisher gets a page and the information about the customer is displayed on his pager. He can call the customer back within minutes to answer questions and book appointments.

"I'm getting four to five pages a week right now from the RealCall button," says Leisher. "The Web site gives them a good glimpse of the service and when I get a page I know I'm getting a customer that knows what we do and has an idea of what service they want. They are usually ready to make an appointment. I didn't want to get flooded with calls, so we had it set up that way."

"I'm responding right away to every page. It's very beneficial to call them back immediately. The customers don't want to wait by the phone for the call back and they appreciate the quick response."

Leisher will be switching the Alert button to link with his cellular phone rather than the pager. When he gets a call from the RealCall service, a robotic voice relays the customer's information. RealCall also provides reports, which include everything about each lead including, the name, phone number, e-mail address, and whatever other information you collect on the Alert button. It keeps a log of the results of each call, allowing you to look back and see whether contact was made with the person.

The price for the RealCall Alert service was included with their Web site package from iNetReady. They pay 50 cents per lead from the button on their site.

"The cost is very reasonable and, for a site that's been up for only a few months, the response is very good," says Leisher optimistically. "I'm looking forward to seeing how the results grow. It's definitely helping to get new customers."

So while you may not sell tangible goods online, there are many other reasons to take your business to the Internet. Local service companies across the country are finding ways to do business online.

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