Online businesses: Service or schmervice?

From time to time, I stumble across online businesses that forget that first and foremost, they are a business – not a website.

TWO this week.

I generally find these things when I need service from a business for the first time. Perhaps the dream of the typical internet business owner is to put up a website, get buried in sales, hire a gorgeous assistant to deal with everything (you know, sales, shipping, etc) and sit back and just watch the money roll in.

Thennnnnnn reality hits. You’ve got a real business, Lucy.

People email, call and fax real businesses. No matter how well you’ve explained something, there will be someone who needs help. Or missed that page, or didn’t see the FAQ, or didn’t scan Google for something that seems totally flippin’ obvious to you. No matter how much you’ve automated – which I’m all in favor of – there will be some things you just need to deal with.

The obvious missing “secret” here is…

…to remember that you are not your customer. Sing along, please:)

And that provides the easy ticket to differentiating yourself from that uncommunicative guy who owns the other online store that sells what you sell (or the other 372 stores, whatever).

See, your customer came to you because your site was easier to use, your price was better (lets hope it was more than that), your service and guarantee was better, you know more about the topic, and so on. NOT because you are so smart that you make people’s hair hurt when you talk technobabble with them.

Here’s a simple, yet inane example of how simple it is to make a difference.

Several months ago, Brad Fallon suggested that I put our toll-free number at the top of the page of a retail sales website that I run. Seems kinda obvious when you think about it, but I hadn’t done it.

“All the contact info is on the contact page at, so why should I have to put it at the top of every page too?” is the boneheaded programmer response. You know who you are. Ignore Brad, I dare ya, smart guy.

Having been taught to listen (perhaps thrashed is a better word than taught?), I did what Brad said and it has resulted in sales that we clearly wouldn’t have gotten. People call with quick questions – things that tell me “Put this in a more obvious place on the website”, or “Make this more clear – because it obviously ISN’T”, or similar.

And that reminds me of places that don’t even HAVE a toll-free number, online business or not. I know what you’re thinking. “Geez, calls are only $4 to $6 an HOUR, why do people need a toll-free number?”

Doesn’t matter. They just do. Don’t worry about the why, worry about the needs and wants (mostly the wants).

It made a substantial difference in sales 10 years ago when we added a toll free support line, even though all the calls came from businesses owned by people who had lots of money. It still makes a difference to people today.

You heard me right. It made a substantial difference in SALES when we added a toll-free SUPPORT line.

A toll free line can be had for $50 upfront and $5/month (or less) plus toll charges for the inbound calls. So I’d say this when you ask me why you need a toll free line: “Geez, calls are only $4-6 an HOUR, why don’t you have a toll-free number?”

We can do the math if you like. If your biz is open 9-5 and 1 line is busy all day long, that’s $24-48 a day. If you have a staff person on the support line all day, $24-48 a day better be chump change.

The phone number on your website has other benefits. For example, there are still some folks who don’t want to put their credit card on the net – not realizing that most credit card auths go over the net these days. It isnt worth arguing the point about how their number ends up on the net, discussing encryption and other details, they simply want the comfort of talking to a person, even if that person is going to type their number into a web browser on a secure connection.

These folks really don’t like the online business that tries to be the faceless, personality-void corporate entity.

It’s about the service, Purvis. Don’t hide from your customers. If you’re the only one who actually helps them, you’ll end up being the only one getting their money too. Sure, automate everything you can – but don’t eliminate service. Enhance it.