Fuel cost thoughts for small business owners

To the consternation of many, I’ve quietly noted for several years that the rise in fuel costs would also have some positive impacts on us and on our society – in addition to the obvious negative ones.

It’s not a liberal or conservative issue, it’s a pragmatic one.

Among other things, higher fuel costs will…

  • force us to become more self-sufficient, both as individuals and as communities.
  • force us to become better thinkers. The smartest business now has even more of an edge.
  • force us to become better planners.
  • force us to become far more responsible to ourselves, our neighbors and to our businesses.
  • force us to deliver even more services via the Internet
  • force us to use the Internet to fine tune the logistics of every aspect of our businesses
  • require our communities to become far more dependent on the individuals and businesses within, rather than on a largely-faceless community 600 or 6000 miles away.

That last one is where the business that has a personal relationship with its clients will shine.

What should fuel costs have the small business owner thinking about?

The obvious thing is the rising cost of shipping and transportation of goods.

While it is “really cool” to order a new computer on the internet at 2am and then be surprised to have the Airborne guy standing in my driveway with the computer box at 8am that day, the cost of making that happen is far more than the $5 extra I paid to make it so back in 1987.

The changes that rising fuel costs cause require some thought, no matter what you do or sell.

Some might not be so obvious, and those are the ones that can make the most difference.

Look for things that are below the radar of “most people”.

One example: the real estate business

Evidence is appearing that prospective home buyers are looking far more closely at the location of homes and the resulting commutes.

The higher price of homes close to town is offset by shorter commutes to work and shopping. How many people in California (much less Boise) would rather spend that extra 2-4 hours a day with their family rather than on gas, as they stare at the back of the car in front of them? Suddenly, even with California wages, those numbers become significant.

If you are a Realtor or a mortgage broker, you have to be watching for small changes in people’s behavior before they become large changes. You might start selling more homes in areas that are less congested (slower traffic, longer commutes), yet still close in and convenient.

You might have a new tool that takes MLS address info, ownership years, employer data and change real estate agent farming forever.

Maybe you “niche yourself” by offering a service for employers that helps their people find homes closer to the office, or a similar service for employers who are moving employees to the area.

You might focus your attention on selling those remote homes by touting their access to broadband internet and place your marketing attention on work-at-home business owners, telecommuters and the like – people who are far less concerned about commuting distances.

Distances to day cares from work and homes are now more important. This will affect your ability to find employees. Minimum wage work will be chosen more carefully, since commute costs will eat into a small wages quickly.

If you were having a hard time finding people a year ago, commute costs due to fuel prices might complicate that further.

You must put far more thought into those 3 little words: location, location, location.

The best Realtors are going to find smart ways to leverage today’s issues, as they always have, only the parameters have changed.

It isn’t just real estate though

If you do a lot of mail order/internet order/phone order business, how are you preparing your business to do more locally?

What if shipping costs tripled tomorrow? Would your mail order business survive? Where would you find “replacement” customers locally? How would you attract them? Would you focus on regional mail order clients vs national? What changes in your product line are necessary to succeed on that refocused client market?

These are things you should already be thinking about, no matter what you do.

Locals grumble about real estate websites too

Several local people mentioned the real estate post from yesterday at last night’s CFHS Speech and Debate State Championship celebration.

People who had never said a word about the blog before. Surprised me a little. Avast mayteys, we’ve got lurkers!! 🙂

Anyhow, I got a lot of “No kidding” and “Why don’t they do this?” sort of comments out of it. I think I hit a nerve with a couple of em. They were downright grumpy about it.

Grumpy attacks
photo credit: Jere Dow

The “Why don’t they” comments were common-sense stuff.

Things like this:

  • Why can’t I search the available listings by school district?
  • Why can’t I search the available listings by subdivision?
  • Why can’t I get new business listings sent by text message to my phone?

I could go on, but you get the idea.

So…what about your web site?

Why don’t real estate agents take their websites seriously?

I’m working on an article for the Flathead Beacon (the local paper where my business column runs) about small business websites.

The article is actually the first a series that I’m doing, looking at niches one at a time. The first niche I’m covering is real estate agent / real estate broker websites in the local area.

Night Shot
photo credit: VisitMyLuxuryHome.com

I get the idea that a lot of these businesses really don’t take their website seriously. Given that we live in a resort area outside of Glacier National Park, you can’t just assume that because the locals don’t care (a mistaken assumption, I think) that your site doesn’t matter.

I looked 15-20 different real estate websites.

What I found

  • There are a few real estate service bureaus that tend to create most of the sites (yes, there are exceptions). You can tell because the sites of several real estate companies that compete with one another are being serviced by the same out of town web service. The layouts are the same except for color and a few graphics. The site structure is identical across several competitors. Where is the competitive advantage from using a template website that 12 other Realtors are using?
  • Most of the sites did not have curb appeal, something I would expect any real estate business to understand.
  • A few sites were exceptions, and the best looking sites were built by local web companies (how cool is that?)

All of these sites had a few critical things missing:

  • Almost no testimonials, and with one exception, the ones that did exist were weak, or years old (if they were dated). One notable exception that was fairly well done – Matthew Hohnberger’s – but even his testimonials could be improved (not the text, other things).
  • A lot of me, me, me – and not much focus on the prospective client.
  • No blog (one exception that didn’t motivate the reader to return, with no posts in almost 3 weeks)
  • No frequently asked questions. Help me buy. Help me sell. Establish your expertise before I make the call.
  • Almost no video. What video there was – came from their national organization. Homogenized corporate content that isn’t specific to Northwest Montana or even to your agency. If you’re an agent here in Montana, do you think I can drop an expert agent from Miami or Dallas here and have them know what to talk about? No. Any video is better than no video, but you need video of YOUR staff, talking about issues in THIS area.
  • No audio.
  • Very few photos – a few have photos but are monopolized by large unbroken paragraphs. Of the photos that were there, almost all were property or mountain view scenic shots. Only a few included a quality photo of the real estate agents. One included a photo of the sign on their building. Why is that interesting to someone looking to move to the Flathead, or buy/sell a home here?
  • No statement of specialties. “I specialize in finding homes for people with a heartbeat.” is not a specialty. I found a few that specialize in waterfront properties or property in certain areas, but none of them stepped out and said “This territory is mine and you are making a mistake if you work with someone else in my area of expertise.”
  • No commercial website for commercial buyers and sellers, vs. the residential site – other than the funnel site provided by the national organization. Commercial clients have different needs. Who is going to address them?
  • No city specific sites. Kalispell is not the same as Bigfork (or Whitefish, or Columbia Falls or Somers). The buyers and sellers are different, with different budgets and different needs. Why would they have the same site?
  • Very little establishment of personality on the part of the business, or the people working there.
  • No use of Web 2.0 / social media technologies. It isn’t just a buzzword.

Apple iPhone vs BlackBerry Curve 8300: Size Comparison
photo credit: Dan_H

The biggest reason for all of the above is the dependence on using whatever the national real estate company provides as a fill-in-the-blanks website. I found little or no investment in localized content or regional information except from the agencies that are not affiliated with national firms – and even those were missing most of the items above.

The problem with using the stuff that the national companies offer (much less with not using the items on the list above) is that the successful, smart agent can’t stand out from a crowd of starving, Tercel-driving agents who are working other jobs and selling only on the weekend. You don’t want me choosing a real estate agent out of a phone book. You want me to know, long before I sell a house, who I insist upon using and why.

If you are that agent selling only on the weekend, trying to make a name for yourself is the reason you should be doing these things.

Bridle - 660 E. Bridle Way, Gilbert AZ
photo credit: VisitMyLuxuryHome.com

I know, if you are currently doing well in the real estate business (and the smart ones do well regardless of the market), you have to be asking: Why is this important?

It’s important because you are leaving money on the table. You are not speaking to the younger crowd, nor to the web-savvy crowd who lives here (or elsewhere).

Right now, the field is wide open for the person or business that steps up. Even if you are making a good living in real estate, the websites I found are leaving money on the table.

It’s important because people who choose a real estate agent should be – if you do things right – choosing an agent for life. How many sales is that for you? How many sales is that for referred friends?

It’s not about the technology, it’s about the clients.

If you aren’t in the real estate business – you should be looking at your site through a very similar lens. Don’t discard the conversation just because you aren’t a Realtor.