ACHRNEWS

The Internet: New necessity for service firms

April 26, 2000
Although much has been written about Internet establishments offering retail merchandise, a quiet revolution is going on in the retail services sector. Businesses are relying more on e-commerce than ever before.

Traditionally, contractors were able to track the success of their business by the amount of floor traffic and phones calls throughout the day. Now, businesspeople keep an eye on their websites and count the day’s hits.

Carpet cleaner hits the net

According to Michael McCullam, the owner of Renaissance Carpet Cleaners, the Internet is bringing in new customers at an accelerating rate.

McCullam said that a few years ago, a business associate suggested that he set up an Internet website. He freely admits that he is no “techie” and was hesitant at first. Then a friend put him in touch with a firm that established a Web site for his business for $100 and even took care of listing the business in various Internet directories.

“For that price,” McCullam said, “I couldn’t afford to say no.”

Since establishing his site, McCullam estimated that he has picked up about $1,000 to $2,000 per year in additional profits. He said that in the Washington, DC area where his business is located, there are many people who are relatively affluent and own computers.

At the same time, these people are extremely busy. For such individuals, added McCullam, it is convenient to use the Internet to “shop and click.”

“More than one customer has told me, ‘If I can’t find it on the Net, they don’t get my business,’” he said. “Many busy people prefer using the Internet to looking through the Yellow Pages. All they have to do is place the term ‘carpet cleaning’ plus their location in their favorite search engine, and a list of service providers appears.

“For busy people, this is a real attraction.”

McCullam also said that the Internet enables him to follow up with customers more efficiently. “I always try to get a customer’s e-mail address,” he said. “I use e-mail to remind customers that it’s time for maintenance work, or to let them know about a special I’m offering. I like it. It’s fast and efficient.”

Duct cleaner's point of view

Another satisfied Internet user is Tom Warner, proprietor of Utility Service Express. USE performs a variety of services for clients, including duct cleaning.

“I get one or two jobs a day from my Web site,” Warner said.

He explained that his site is listed in various Internet directories and search engines. An unexpected benefit of being widely listed, Warner added, is receiving job applications from qualified individuals. “The labor market is pretty tight now,” he said. “It’s real nice to find qualified applicants this way.”

Warner said that his volume of Internet business has grown steadily since establishing his website. Being listed in various Internet directories has not been a problem.

“Some directories will list you for free while others charge a modest amount,” he explained. Warner said the most he pays is for being listed with AOL, and that’s a bargain at under $500 per year. He noted that the Internet works better for him than the Yellow Pages.

“If a customer picks up the Yellow Pages, he’ll find hundreds of listings, but an Internet search is apt to produce far fewer listings. That gives me a better chance of getting the business. There’s just too much competition in the Yellow Pages.”

Repair services at one site

A national site offering a variety of home services is www.Repair Now.com (see .COMments, pg. 13). This site offers one-stop shopping for homeowners who need some repair work done.

The average homeowner spends approximately $1,461 per year on maintaining and improving their home; 16% of these homeowners attempt to fix problems by themselves, but end up calling a repair professional. Finding a reliable service professional is a challenge.

Sarah Napier, managing director of RepairNow.com, Inc., said that most individuals looking for repair work are afraid “of being ripped off or embarrassed.”

The Web site offers to seek out, refer, and even set up appointments for customers online with a local service provider.

The owners of this site have 16 years of experience in the service warranty business, operating as NEW Customer Service Companies, Inc., an administrator of consumer product protection programs and extended service plans. In that capacity, the company established a national network of service providers.

RepairNow.com has established a network of quality service providers. “We do all the legwork for you — who’s insured, who’s licensed, what other consumers say about the service provider,” said Napier.

The site maintains a customer satisfaction section that scores various service providers based on customer feedback elicited by RepairNow.com. This mechanism helps ensure customers that the site’s service providers provide quality work.

Customer feedback is tabulated and used to:

  • Measure overall consumer satisfaction with a particular service provider;
  • Set standards for RepairNow certified providers; and
  • Rank service providers from highest to lowest based on a 100-point scale (100 = Excellent, 0 = Poor).

Another innovative application at this site is a software product called the “Product Assist Troubleshooter.” This tool enables individuals to determine for themselves what is wrong with something that’s not working properly. Product Assist helps consumers try to find the source of their problems before they schedule service.

According to Napier, the software can diagnose the problem and identifies the likely cause. Often, a customer can then go out and make his/her own repair.

When that’s not possible, RepairNow will assist a customer in scheduling a repair online.

The service provider coming to the customer’s home has all the diagnostic information, so the provider is much more likely to have whatever parts may be required to complete the repair.

“This capability is greatly appreciated by our customers,” says Napier.

Currently eight out of 10 customers (82%) say they are satisfied with their last repair job, with 53% saying that the quality of the job done drives service satisfaction.

From this brief survey of service establishments with Internet sites, there appears to be a compelling reason for service establishments to have an Internet presence. The low cost of admission coupled with the consumer convenience factor suggest that any service establishment that does not have an Internet presence is probably passing up an important opportunity.

Sidebar: Putting the 'e' in e-business

Schneider Electric and its market-leading Square D brand are putting the “e” into e-business.

Internet data centers must operate 24/7, and their customers have zero tolerance for any down time. New Schneider Electric technologies provide necessary “24/7” assurances. Schneider’s customer list reads like an Internet Who’s Who — AOL, MCI, AT&T, and dozens more.

Dave Guidette, who heads Schneider Electric’s Advanced Technology and Analytics, has insights on how the company transformed itself from a traditional electrical industry firm into an e-powerhouse.

“We realized some years ago that we could no longer limit our technology focus just to the further deployment of standard circuit breakers, safety switches, and the like — what could be considered the traditional electromechanical product environment,” he said in a recent interview.

“Visionaries in Advanced Technology and Analytics are developing and applying technologies that no one even dreamed about just a few years ago. We’ve completely redefined our business in terms of customers, in terms of their changing needs, and what we anticipate their needs will be in the future.

“That made the prospects for electrical technology much more interesting and exciting.”

For more information, contact Elliott at selliott@selz.com (e-mail).