Accessibility Can Pay Off

Garden.com, Furniture.com, boo.com… the list of dead dot-coms has grown so long that people running small businesses are bound to wonder: If they, with all their millions in funding couldn’t hang on, what hope do I have of turning a profit on the Net?

As these failures demonstrate, having deep pockets doesn’t ensure success. All along in this column, I’ve described online marketing tactics that require time rather than money and thus better suit underfunded upstarts. Here’s another two-pronged strategy that’s perfect for the smallest of small online operations:

  1. Tell web visitors how to get in touch.

  2. Respond promptly and personally.

Hello… Anyone There?

In my role as ClickZ Forum Moderator, I often find myself searching an interesting site trying to find the name of the marketing vice president or CEO to offer him or her an opportunity to sound off to 20,000 or so Internet marketers from around the world. Many times I can’t find any personal email addresses at all. Instead what I find is an address like support@ourcompany.com, which rarely helps me get to the person I’m trying to reach. Sometimes there’s no email address anywhere on the site, only inquiry or online order forms. Very often there’s no telephone number, either.

Now consider a site that makes it easy to find the name of the person in charge, furnishes his or her photo and bio, and not only supplies an email address but goes so far as to invite visitors to get in touch. Whether from the point of view of a potential buyer, a possible strategic partner, or a media producer or editor, this is tremendously appealing.

And to accommodate people with all kinds of preferences, such a site includes a personal email address, fax number, telephone number, and even physical address so that the web visitor can make an educated guess when a good time to call might be.

Let’s take this a step further. Imagine that someone who inquires gets a personal answer to his or her email within a few hours or a live person on the phone. Now the person thinking of doing business with the site has reason to believe that he or she is doing business with responsible people, not faceless functionaries likely to have the attitude, “Sorry, that’s not my job.”

If you think that what I’ve written so far is so obvious that it should go without saying, think again. Recently at a seminar I gave to bankers, some said that they couldn’t possibly post the names, email addresses, telephone extensions, and photos of the people responsible for various functions on their web sites because it would pose a security risk or make them overly vulnerable to headhunters.

Likewise Richard Hoy, a fellow ClickZ columnist and president of Booklocker.com, wrote a column defending small businesses not posting any telephone numbers and making the process of asking questions remote and impersonal.

Another common objection to the advice I’ve given here came from a client who didn’t want customers and venture capitalists (VCs) to know that everything was run on a shoestring budget by two recent college graduates. Assuming everything else about the site functions smoothly, knowing who’s behind it tends to bond customers to it more, and as for the VCs, wouldn’t they know the generation and circumstances of the founders way before they sealed a deal?

Making It Real

Here’s how my point was put by Martha Retallick, a web designer in Tucson, Arizona, in the ClickZ Forum: “The little guys and gals can give their accounts much more personal attention than the big guys and gals do. Clients love that. And in a small business, tending to relationships is something that is done as a matter of course. Big companies have Customer Relationship Management Teams. There is a difference.”

Similarly, Laurence Master, president of DVD Overnight, offered these thoughts on how his small company manages to compete successfully with Blockbuster and Hollywood Video:

We handle hundreds of emails daily from people across the country and each one is answered personally by one of our staff as quickly as possible. We’ve even hired part-timers to fill in on the weekends to make sure all inquiries are answered right away. When we respond to a customer within hours, addressing them as if writing a friend, we’ll most likely see that person again. This “dialogue” between company and customer is something that the giants have yet to be able to grasp.

Still not convinced? Consider that big companies are spending millions on “relationship marketing” initiatives because they know that customers who feel recognized personally tend to give them repeat business. A big company can use fancy software tools to create the illusion of a relationship. A small company can cultivate the real thing.

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