Daniel Harrison is an early adopter if there ever was one. Paramount Services Corp. -- his Long Island pool and hot-tub supply company -- was on the Web even before Amazon.com was.
Back in 1996, chat rooms and message boards were becoming centers of passionate customer interaction, focusing on products as diverse as electric trains and knitting yarn. "We thought such a community would work for us," Harrison says.
Harrison's ISP agreed to install chat technology on his site in April 1996. Paramount would pay a $2,500 outlay for the software, and the ISP promised to provide free service after it was up and running. "We were really excited," Harrison recalls. "We put notices on our main pages that next Wednesday we were going to have a live on-line chat with our customers at 10 p.m. We offered 10% off products that were bought during the chat. We tried to make it as appealing as we could."
Come Wednesday, Harrison and five of his servicemen stayed after hours to run the chat. They were so sure they were going to be swamped with customer inquiries that they didn't order dinner, although they did have a few beers. Unfortunately, it wasn't much of a party on-line. "We had maybe 10 people come," says Harrison.
The crew was happy anyway. The technology worked. Paramount was again on the cutting edge. Harrison figured that the weekly audience would grow to 30 pretty quickly, then shoot upward. But only 6 showed up for the second go-around. And week three was quieter still.
Harrison realized his mistake. "If the hot-tub water is turning your kid's hair green, you don't want to wait for the answer until Wednesday night at 10, and you don't want to know what some nice lady had to say on the message board," he says. "My customers don't want to talk to each other. If they have a question, they want to talk to an expert."
When you live and breathe your product, it's hard to realize that customers aren't as passionate about it as you are. "I'm sure if I had Michael Jackson talking about his hot tub, I'd get 10 million people in a chat room," Harrison says. "Without him, I only got 4. In 20 years of retail, I've had bigger busts. But that was a pretty big one."
MIKE HOFMAN was previously editor of Inc.com and a deputy editor at Inc. magazine, which he joined in 1996. The site was nominated for a National Magazine Award for Digital Media in 2010, and was named the best business website by Folio Magazine. In 2006, Hofman was part of a team of writers nominated for a Webby Award for best business blog. He lives in New York City. @mikehofman