NEW YORK -- It's widely believed that businesses, regardless of their size, must operate online if they expect to survive. Customers increasingly expect to do business over the Internet.
But that doesn't mean customers want to conduct all transactions in cyberspace, and it doesn't mean business owners should be forgoing the human element -- especially when it comes to customer service.
Consultants suggest that small companies combine the Internet and person-to-person contact when providing service, taking a big-picture approach to perhaps the most critical part of running a business.
"Every company finds as they add Internet capability, that it becomes a new avenue and a new channel for their customers," said Ron Zemke, a Minneapolis-based consultant and co-author of "E-service."
If you're not operating on line, you should be thinking about it, at the very least from a customer service point of view. A company with a Web site is much more available and visible to customers who naturally turn to the Internet.
Even if you operate only locally, or even if you don't plan to sell your products online, "being on the Internet gives people an opportunity to find you and figure you out -- which is a great savings for your customers," Zemke said.
Moreover, a Web site can help you -- and your customers -- get work done faster if you supply access to account information online. It probably will take less time for customers to find out about invoices and deliveries via the Internet than if they called up and spoke to one of your employees.
Because of its ease and convenience, it might be tempting to try to use the Internet as a primary service tool. But that could mean giving up the edge that your company has over larger competitors.
"Small businesses have a real advantage, being able to do everything person to person," said Janelle Barlow, a consultant and author of "Emotional Value: Creating Strong Bonds with Your Customers." That personal touch will indeed create a bond between your company and customers, she said.
Using the Internet "doesn't mean it's the only way to do business," Barlow said.
Basically, what your business should try to do is give customers the option of dealing with your company online, on the phone or in person.
"You need personal contact, but it's not something you need to do every single day," said Zemke.
Because small companies aren't burdened by layers of bureaucracy, "they can do things like customizing products and tailoring things to the specific customer's needs," Zemke said.
"It's easier in a small business to do one-to-one marketing and one-to-one servicing, to assign someone in your company to be accountable for a single client," he said.
The Internet doesn't have to be an entirely faceless, non-emotional entity. A well-developed Web site can engender positive feelings toward your company from your customers.
Pointing to Internet advertising, including the amusing commercials that many dot-coms have been running on TV, Barlow said, "they're appealing to humor ... They're delightful to watch -- they're not selling it out of a left-brain approach, they're selling it out of an emotional right-brain approach."
And once you set up an Internet site, keep track of what happens when customers use it. Are they satisfied? If they have complaints, are they dealt with quickly?
Barlow noted that many customers of Internet companies -- whether they're businesses or consumers -- often spend hours trying to reach someone to speak to if something has gone wrong. That is the wrong way to use the Internet as a customer service tool.
Zemke advises companies that aren't using the Web to start seriously considering it as a service tool.
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