It used to be the perfect indicator of the health of your business.
The constant wail of the phone ringing meant that there was plenty of activity, which in turn meant lots of sales and subsequent profit.
If you were in an office where the phone rang constantly, it was a good sign that business was good – unless perhaps you were in the complaints department.
But these days it may mean just the opposite. These days customers tend to use the phone when they have a problem rather than deal with it online.
The reason? Problems usually require immediate attention – not to forget a degree of letting off steam, compelling customers to get on the phone instead of wait goodness knows how long to be attended by email.
So a ringing phone may now mean a sign of trouble rather than a humming business.
Pings replace rings
Instead, the ping of incoming email is the new music to the ears of business people: Because that ping represents a new enquiry, a new order or, best of all, a receipt of payment.
What’s becoming crystal clear as online purchasing continues its boom is that time-poor customers prefer to have their sales enquiry dealt with online, be that via website, email or now even chat help.
It’s all part of a massive desire on the part of customers to shift time.
Consumers are taking advantage of time-shifting technology to carry out their tasks as quickly and seamlessly as possible so they can move onto the next thing in their busy day.
And navigating through a voice-response system, being put on hold or, worst of all these days, playing phone tag, do not meet this time-shifting criterion.
A permanent record of the transaction
Online communications also have a useful legal advantage for both buyer and seller by providing a built-in record of the transaction – something that may be very useful if anything goes pear-shaped.
This fundamental shift in consumer behaviour provides new challenges for business operators who have set their businesses up to communicate by phone.
In some cases, like emergency-style services, there’s still no better way of communicating.
Sending a plumber an email when he may attend it once a week is going to lead to a very soggy and/or smelly home or workplace!
But for those less predicated on absolute immediate service, it may well be wise to investigate some of the time-shifting capabilities available to you.
Tooling up for an online world
Needless to say a professional website is an absolute must, combined with the ability to respond to emails promptly.
In line with time-shifting communication, your website needs to ‘close the sale’ as much as possible.
By that, I mean you take your customer as close to (and if possible past) the actual sale transaction as possible without leaving the website or online sales mechanism.
If you are dealing with products, that means selling them online and ideally backing that up with chat help.
Packaging up your services for online sale
If you provide services, don’t dismiss eCommerce websites as a brilliant way to bring in business quickly. It may well be possible to bundle your services in such a way that you can sell them online and, better still, gather either a deposit or, in some cases, a full payment in advance!
Your correspondent has had great success by pre-selling blocks of time, or credits via our website. Customers can go to our website and purchase a block of support credits which then gives them as much service as they need. And we get paid upfront!
Another fantastic sales tool for more complex services is an online briefing or specification form, where you can ask the questions that will provide all you need to generate a fast quotation. In some cases, the technology can even perform that quotation for you.
But before you lose sleep on how much all of this newfangled technology may set you back, you will be pleasantly surprised to know that all of it is quite affordable for even the smallest business, at least at a basic level.
More professional and seamless solutions will require you to spend more, but in return you will get either more or improved sales procedures.
Either way, given the clear intentions and directions of today’s customers, it will be an investment worth making.
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. www.theeteam.com.au