Hard to believe, but facsimile machines didn't come into widespread business use until the late 1980s. I wrote an article in 1987 about a mechanical contractor who realized great cost savings and productivity gains from these newfangled devices. Within a few years, our company bought one and so did just about everyone else I knew. Overnight delivery bills became a small fraction of what they used to be. The question, "Do you have a fax number?" got transformed into, "What's your fax number?"
That's where we're at right now with regard to e-mail. Hardly anyone I come in contact with anymore lacks an e-mail address. I find "What's your e-mail address?" slipping from my tongue more often than, "Do you have e-mail?" It's become such a useful business tool at such little cost, hardly anyone continues to resist adopting this technology. (There may still be a few holdouts among the people reading this. Rest assured you'll eventually get online, probably sooner rather than later.)
Web sites, though, are a different story. Do you really need a Web site? Same answer. Many contractors generate all the work they can handle without one, and so they think they can live without. But a Web site is rapidly evolving into a business necessity. Here are some reasons you should have one.
An online presence costs very little. You may have someone on your staff with the expertise to develop and maintain a Web presence. Young people in particular are "with it" regarding the Internet, and many would jump at the chance to work with this technology, especially if it offers a route to advancement in your company.
Even without a capable person on staff, there are plenty of Web site-hosting services available. The price has dropped considerably in recent years due to fierce competition after the dot-com collapse flooded the market with Internet-savvy job seekers. Having a Web site probably will cost you less than maintaining a fax or a second phone line. Web sites do not entail usage costs like fax or phone systems. This means once the fixed costs are covered, you can reach an almost infinite number of people with little added investment.
An Internet presence marks you as "with it." Most contractor Web sites are little more than electronic brochures, but that's okay. Better to have a simple Web site providing basic information about your company and a means of contact than none at all. As you grow more sophisticated, you can improve upon it gradually. Simply having a Web address on your trucks, business cards, stationery and promotional literature marks you as in sync with the modern world.
Conversely, lack of a Web site may raise questions in many peoples' minds about your company's technological savvy. If you make it hard for them to find you, they won't.
What you don't know can hurt you. Most contractors find it hard to pinpoint how much business they gain from a Web site. The Internet is mainly a research and communications medium. Few jobs get booked. Nonetheless, more and more people are screening potential contractors via the Internet. You have no idea how many jobs you might be excluded from because you don't have a Web site providing basic company information. More and more people are using search engines, Web links and online referral services as an alternative to the Yellow Pages and word of mouth. If you don't have a Web site, you're completely excluded from this form of marketing.
A Web site works for you 24/7. The Internet has blurred the distinction between work and leisure time for many people. Potential clients often use evening and weekend hours to surf the Internet for business purposes. If you don't show up there, you might as well not exist.
A Web site saves time and aggravation. Both for you and your customers. You don't get pestered with as many phone calls asking for basic information about your company if people can find such info online. For them, it's a great advantage over sitting on hold or leaving phone messages. You want to make yourself available to them as much as possible.
Internet use is exploding. E-commerce, i.e. transactions conducted online, has not fulfilled the hype surrounding it. E-business, however, is busting out all over. I'm referring here to the phenomena just mentioned, with more and more people using the Internet to seek basic information. We can see this with our company's magazines. Most of our Web sites' usage graphs show a steeply climbing arrow month after month. Many of our magazines get visited by tens of thousands of people per month. It's not that we're doing anything extraordinary to attract them. We're learning as we go and trying to provide more and more useful content, but it's mainly the Internet's growing popularity that keeps ratcheting our numbers skyward.
If you decide you really do need/want a Web site, here are a few tips to guide you:
1. Put some thought into domain names. Yes, you'll want something closely associated with your identity. Joe's Cleaning Co. would do well to have an address reading www.joescleaning.com (if it's available). But you also may want to register under other names (it costs basically $35 a year for each name), such as www.joe'scleaning.com (with the apostrophe).
2. Do you want e-mail with your Web site? For little extra cost, usually you can establish an e-mail link to your Web site. Be careful about this, though. If you have an e-mail link, make sure someone in your company checks e-mail at least once, and preferably several times, each day. It's better not to have an e-mail link than to leave customer inquiries unanswered for days at a time.
3. How fancy do you want to get? I recommend keeping it relatively simple at the start. You can always develop more features over time. Be careful about getting too complicated with graphics and sound. People with older computers may have trouble loading your pages. They'll get tired of waiting and move on to someone else. Before designing or hiring someone to design your own Web site, do some Internet surfing to view other contractor sites with desirable features. Adopt those you find convenient and to your liking.
4. Establish links. The way to build traffic on your Web site is to establish links with as many local organizations as you can, especially business-related sites such as the Chamber of Commerce. Avoid the common mistake of linking visitors to trade associations and suppliers you do business with. You want to be linked on their sites, but it can be counterproductive to establish links to them. That's because you will be sending your visitors to sites where they have access to links of competitors. Once they land on your Web site, you want them to stay there, not traipse around the Internet until they find other companies just like yours to do business with.