In this week’s WWWorkshop we continue our examination of just how much the digital landscape has altered for SMEs since the below blog originally appeared back in 2008.
While services firms have much in common when it comes to ‘tangiblising’ their offerings using their website and eMarketing tactics, the way they move prospects through the sales cycle differs markedly, depending on exactly what type of service they provide.
As discussed last time, the online needs of a transport booking agency differ markedly from those of a tradesperson. And those of an agency business are fundamentally different to those in a health setting.
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So here we’ll take a closer look at how different kinds of services move their prospects closer to a sale online.
Before we do though, it’s important to understand the role of the web in the purchase process. As web technology becomes both more sophisticated and affordable, businesses need to utilise the technology to move prospects as far through the purchase process as they can.
For example, transport providers such as airlines originally used their websites to provide fare and schedule information. However, technology soon became affordable enough to move well beyond what is now seen as basic information to booking and paying for a ticket. Apart from seamlessly closing the sale and providing proof of the transaction, the web was able to improve cash flow and lower ticket prices as processing and intermediary expenses were dispensed with.
Of course there is a downside from not achieving this too. If you can’t close the sale online, your prospect will move to your competitor in a matter of a few clicks and open the dialogue with them. Meaning you lose the sale altogether.
Before you say ‘but they will just pick up the phone and call’, remember these two things:
- Many people are time-poor. Because the web is 24/7 they will want to complete the deal (or as much of it as possible) on the spot and not have to deal with endless phone tag and messing around.
- Most young people expect not to have to speak to a person to get what they want. They have grown up with the instant gratification the web provides.
Ignore these facts and your business will increasingly suffer.
1. Quotation-based services
2008: Quotation-based services are those that are essentially labour and materials oriented projects where prospects or client brief a supplier on their requirements and receive a written estimate or quotation in response. Web services firms, builders, graphic designers and architects all follow this procedure as standard practice.
There are several things these service providers can do to optimise the chance of a sale online. As outlined in Part 1 – bundling your services into fixed price packages allows prospects to examine and order such a package as if it were a product. For example, if you were a locksmith you could come up with a ‘double deadlock pack’, where deadlocks were fitted front and back for a fixed price in a given territory. Optional extras like travel, a third deadlock etc could easily be added to the basic package.
Of course once you have one or more packages like this, you can easily add affordable secure shopping cart technology so that you not only have the order, the payment (or deposit) is in the bank.
If you find it difficult to package your services in this way, at least have a detailed estimate form that could either provide a cost guide on the spot or provide enough information to be able to provide a firm estimate as soon as you receive the information by email.
All the technology required to carry out these capabilities is now well within reach of the smallest operator.
2014: The major shift since 2008 has been the continued rapid adoption of mobile phones and now devices. These days, services providers are one step closer to making contact with their customers due to the seamless capability of making a call directly from a phone listing. This makes it even more critical to be prominent on search engines as your prospect moves seamlessly from searching for a provider to finding one and making contact immediately – eliminating what was previously a relatively cumbersome process.
2. Appointment-based services
2008: Appointment-based services are those that revolve around a set start and finish time, either at the premises of the supplier (e.g. health professional, hair and beauty, consultant, financial services) or yours (financial advisor, cleaner, gardener, etc).
Online booking and payment services are a boon for these providers. Not only do you gain maximum productivity by allowing prospects to book themselves in and saving you or staff valuable time in doing the same, you can also optimise cash flow by incorporating a deposit or full payment. Online booking systems are now very affordable and will pay themselves off in no time at all.
Failing this, at least have an ‘appointment request form’ where prospects can request a best time, second best and so on so you can respond with all the information you need.
Again, either of these capabilities will help close the sale and prevent clicking off to a competitor.
2014: Whilst the ability to make a firm booking online has improved to a degree, the majority of appointment-based service providers still rely heavily on phone contact. The exception is restaurants, which in the main have come to accept firm online bookings.
But for the rest it represents a critical opportunity to win a booking and occasionally payment immediately instead of risking losing it to a provider who does.
3. Tourism, travel and accommodation
2008: Providers in this sector have been quick to realise the productivity, sales and cash flow benefits of online booking – so much so that it is one industry that has been revolutionised completely by the web.
Quite simply, if you work in this sector you are losing business if you do not have an online availability indicator, booking and payment capability.
The great news is that high demand for these capabilities has led to a surfeit of providers who, in order to compete and survive, constantly add features and lower prices.
2014: These days the equation is painfully simple. Do not offer the ability to book or at least reserve a place online and your risk of losing it is very high indeed. Travel is one area customers want immediate confirmation so as they can rule that off their holiday ‘to-do’ list.
4. Agents and intermediaries
2008: This is a sector with as many threats as there are opportunities. Because the web ‘disintermediates’ (i.e. it puts customers directly in touch with suppliers) businesses in this sector need to have robust strategies in place to deal with the exodus of customers to the online world.
For example, if you were an entertainment agent, is your service still valid when customers can easily search the web for a performer and check their repertoires, listen to a sound grab, view a video and even book them direct?
Strategies are many and varied. For example, do you change your business model away from being a human service to an online directory? If so, do you charge the customer or the supplier? And is the charge a flat joining fee or a percentage of sale?
Or do you alter your service so that there is greater ‘value-add’ that the web may not be able to replicate?
Either way, urgent action is required to defend your business from new forms of online predators.
2014: The above scenario could well have rung a death knell for many ‘intermediaries’ over this time. On the other hand, if you are smart and fast, you can create new categories of intermediation that just weren’t possible beforehand – like experience website Red Balloon or short trip website Uber.
2008: Event providers are one of the real beneficiaries of web technology. Not only can online booking drastically slash the cost of old personal and phone booking requirements, but within no time you can reach thousands and even millions of people for next to nothing thanks to email (and even SMS) list technology. Much of email promotion enjoys a ‘second life’ as recipients forward to others who in turn join your list seamlessly.
Again, demand for these technologies has spawned many suppliers, all of whom are hungry for your business and keep costs decreasing accordingly. So smaller providers, too, can reap the benefits of the online world.
2014: This space has really been revolutionised by online bookings as the multitude of online event booking websites testifies. Now it has gone to the next level by offering community tools on top of the booking capability as the success of event communities like Meetup have proven. Social networking too now plays an even greater role in promoting and even booking many events of both personal and business nature.
Early on, it appeared that providers of services would not gain as much from the web as their product-based counterparts. However, as technology has evolved and become affordable, service providers may well find that what was once a grudge purchase may well be the best marketing investment they’ve ever made.
In addition to being a leading eBusiness educator to the smaller business sector, Craig Reardon is the founder and director of independent web services firm The E Team which was established to address the special website and web marketing needs of SMEs in Melbourne and beyond.