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At Your Service
By Jim Sterne, Target Marketing of Santa Barbara

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

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. (, 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 ( 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.

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 d

Jim Sterne has presented his unique perspective on Internet marketing at conferences around the world, and has lectured at the University of California, Stanford University, and MIT. He stays active as a public speaker and as a consultant, helping each client set internet marketing goals and determine customer relationship strategies. Please contact Jim Sterne at (805) 965-3184 or to find out how his talents might help you achieve your marketing objectives.

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