Web Wise

Service companies need a touch of ingenuity to make the Web work for them.

Explicators of the digital economy generally break down E-commerce into four handy categories. First there are the purveyors of stuff -- those who sell puppy chow and mascara to consumers, or generators and ball bearings to industry. Next come the purveyors of content, such as the Wall Street Journal, Dun & Bradstreet, and Stephen King. Then there are the "purveyors of eyeballs," whose ranks include companies like Yahoo that make money selling banner ads on their Web sites -- chiefly to the purveyors of stuff and content. Finally, there are the purveyors of Web-based services, the so-called ASPs, that reduce the Internet to just one more company department.

But that view of the E-commerce landscape leaves people like me up a creek without an online revenue model. I'm a Web marketing consultant -- a service provider whose expertise (aside from the occasional Web-site review) can't be confined to a digital stream. In that sense I'm like countless other companies that dry-clean clothes, repair cars, massage aching muscles, read palms, and provide other services for which the Web holds little apparent advantage beyond that offered by flyers plastered on windshields. But perhaps service businesses -- particularly small, local companies -- have lagged in the new economy not for lack of opportunity but for lack of imagination. Think your day spa or television-repair shop or exterminator service gains nothing by going online? Think again.

Take, for example, Nick's Auto Repair Inc. ( www.nicksautorepair.com), which has been at the same location in Boulder, Colo., for more than 20 years. Nick's proprietors understand that mere longevity doesn't necessarily translate into familiarity or trust, so they've built a Web site designed to inspire those sentiments in customers old and new.

First the familiar: visitors to Nick's Web site are warmly introduced to the company's past and present. They learn the names and backgrounds of all five of Nick's employees and are treated to reassuring photos of technicians up to their elbows in car engines. The site also traces the company history, going back before 1978. Although such background may or may not testify to a company's performance, history adds ballast, and local history anchors a company in its community, which may matter a great deal to some customers.

But in choosing an auto mechanic, trust is even more important than familiarity. Nick's site engenders trust through both its helpful presentations and its straightforward approach to the company's limitations. "The work we are not able to do is because of a lack of space," Nick's site informs its visitors. It goes on to explain: "We have three technicians with three bays. As a result, we are not able to do any major overhauls. However, if you need this type of work done, we will be more than happy to point you to a reliable specialist."

Then Nick's site does something really smart: it provides three pages of detailed information about an engine's ignition, fuel, and cooling systems, handsomely illustrated with pictures of an ignition coil and a distributor cap. While this material demonstrates the company's expertise, it also suggests to the site visitor that Nick's doesn't use intentional obfuscation as a sales tactic, which is enormously reassuring to those of us who don't know the difference between a fan belt and a Sansabelt, and who feel vulnerable in the presence of those who do. Nick's site is also interactive: the company can send E-mail estimates to its customers, who in turn can look up information written in plain English concerning, say, pickup coils.

Dry cleaners have traditionally made hay from their bricks-and-mortar status: a "plant on premises" claim is considered a major selling point in their line of business. So what can an online presence do for a dry cleaner? The people at Dry Cleaning Depot ( www.drycleaningdepot.com) in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., know their customers will never be able to get rid of gravy stains by hitting the Delete key, but they've figured out another way to make the Internet work for them. "Got a minute?" the company site asks customers. "Probably not. Let Dry Cleaning Depot be your corporate partner. We will pick up and drop off your dry cleaning right where you work."

A nice service, but not exactly Web-centric, right? Then how about this: the site offers its customers a 10% discount on their first bill if they sign up for the service online. Customers can also indicate their starch preferences and, better still, use their credit cards online. That means they don't have to write checks every week or shamefacedly reimburse the receptionist who shelled out $25 to reclaim their silk blouse and crushed-velvet trousers. And there's a monthly billing option for those who'd rather not release their credit-card information over the Internet.

In addition, Dry Cleaning Depot aggressively pursues new customers using that proven online tactic: word of E-mail. Customers are invited to E-mail the Depot with the name and address of prospective corporate accounts, along with some contact information. If three or more people from the suggested company sign up for the Depot's services, the referring customer receives $25 worth of free dry cleaning. By advertising that offer on its site and making the referral process super easy, Dry Cleaning Depot is using the Internet to accrue new business.

What can consultants, doctors, lawyers, and accountants do online besides boast about their skills?

But what about those of us in the professional services? I'm no snob, but offering 25% off my consultation fee to customers tendering an online coupon is a bit dÉclassÉ for a Web-marketing consultancy. And if you need to consult a glossary to understand my advice, then I'm not doing my job. So what can consultants -- not to mention doctors, lawyers, and accountants -- do online besides boast about their skills, post a list of clients, and archive articles?

We, too, can get interactive. That's what Don Peppers and Martha Rogers have done, which should come as no surprise given the Web's pride of place in their celebrated one-to-one marketing philosophy. On its site ( www.1to1.com), the pioneering customer-relationship-management consulting firm has posted interactive tools that inform, entertain, and -- best of all -- explain why you need its help. For example, a program called Checkpoint poses a series of questions about your company: What percentage of your customers account for the bulk of your company's profits? How different are your customers from one another? And so on. The site then produces a chart, based on your responses, that shows how valuable a one-to-one program would be for your organization. And, no, the results aren't always that such a program would be " really, really valuable."

If the Peppers-Rogers Web application is smart, Eric Ward's is inspired. Ward's company, Netpost ( www.netpost.com), has been helping clients raise their hands on the Internet since 1994. Ward's understanding of Web-site publicity is unsurpassed, and -- not surprisingly -- his public Web site is grand. But it's the secret-password-protected portion of the site that exemplifies service-company marketing at its finest. Want the password to it? First you have to attend one of his seminars.

In vivid detail, Ward lays before his audiences the glorious gestalt of marketing Web sites. He explains how a company can make its presence felt on search engines. And in directories. And on What's New sites. And in E-zines, newsletters, newsgroups, discussion lists, and on, and on, and on.

At the end of his presentations, Ward gives his audiences a gift: the password to the section of his site where all his resources, tools, and ideas are laid bare, ripe for the plucking. Anyone with the time and inclination can follow the bouncing browser and obtain without charge the services for which other people pay Ward serious money. Why would he allow such a thing? Usually, those who are willing to invest the time it takes to follow his exhaustive program on their own are people who couldn't afford him in the first place. Whereas those who value time over money and who want the job done right by the best in the business flock to Ward and count themselves lucky that the maestro isn't booked into the next millennium.

Service companies are purveyors of expertise, skills, and knowledge, which in the end will always be tougher to sell online than content, banner ads, and stuff. The trick, perhaps, is to learn a lesson from the Wizard of Oz. Use your public face in whatever way possible to impress the hell out of people, but always be sure that the man behind the curtain is fulfilling his promises.

Jim Sterne, president of Target Marketing, in Santa Barbara, Calif., is a speaker, a consultant, and the author of the books Email Marketing, World Wide Web Marketing, and Customer Service on the Internet (John Wiley & Sons).

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