This reporter and PM's Online Editorial Manager, Joe Ursitti, took Contractors 2000 members on a tour of "E-Business in the Contracting World" at the C-2000 Super Meeting in Seattle, held Feb. 24-26. We developed the program as a review of current Internet activities by C-2000 members and other PHC contractors, along with a look at new e-business developments. Highlights of our presentation included:
- Nearly 55 percent of C-2000 members responding to our survey indicated they have a Web site. However, 70 percent of them view it mainly as a promotional tool rather than a way to generate business. This is appropriate for the moment, but in years to come service businesses will increasingly book calls over their Web sites.
- About 87 percent of members' Web sites enable visitors to contact them via e-mail. However, 52 percent of members check their e-mail only once a day or less. (2 percent said they "never" check their e-mail!) This must change to take advantage of e-business opportunities. It is better not to have e-mail response capability than to ignore customer messages or fail to respond to them promptly.
- Only 35 percent of C-2000 members are able to collect customer information over their Web site. Those who don't squander a prime marketing opportunity. About 93 percent of commercial Web sites do collect customer information.
- Most contractors fail to understand how to use Web site links to their advantage. The most important links are at the local level, via sites such as http://local.yahoo.com, as well as with other local trades for cross-marketing. Instead, contractors tend to link up with trade associations and suppliers, where they expose prospective customers to competitors. Suppliers have an interest in referring their site visitors to local dealers/installers, but it's not good business to have links going the other way. All you do is expose people to products that may be obtained from wholesalers, home centers, etc.
- Domain names (Web site addresses) can be registered by www.networksolutions.com. Try to make yours as short and easy to remember as possible, while still related to your company name. Make sure to establish your own domain name (ex: www.texasplumbing.com), not tagged to an Internet service provider, such as aol.members.com/texasplumbing.
- Web sites should be lean on text. People don't visit to read, just to obtain information. Graphic elements are important, but we recommend against jingles or other sound. It annoys some people, and prospective customers could get in trouble if they get caught visiting your Web site while at work.
- For a good example of how to use visual elements effectively, visit the M.W. Donnelly Inc. Web site at www.donnelly-mw.com/default.html and see how it draws attention to its phone number.
- Several C-2000 members had good results hiring applicants from Internet job postings. They tend to attract a higher caliber of applicant than newspaper classifieds, and you can draw from the entire country.
Training InitiativeC-2000 board member George Brazil introduced a plan for a vocational training school funded by C-2000 and, he hopes, other trade associations. Tentatively called, "Service Trades Training Institute," the STTI would aim to recruit students who would learn via video disks and Internet technology in their own homes and at their own pace. "With hundreds of different topics, totaling 1,080 or more hours (in addition to on-the-jo training), the program can train and certify students in as little as 18 months," said Brazil.
The plan calls for students to be recruited via media advertising, with leads going to marketing agents around the country. After being qualified, students would be assigned to participating contractors who would agree to lease tools and equipment and provide facilities as needed in exchange for a fee paid by STTI. Students would also be matched with a facilitator who would provide mentoring and guidance for a free, also paid by STTI.
Students who do not have personal funds to pay STTI tuition could seek financial aid from outside lenders, or via loans from participating contractors. Students would not take part in on-the-job training until completing the first half of the program, except as an observing jobsite intern. The second half of the curriculum would focus on service and repair, and would involve the student being taken on as a full-time employee.
About 150 C-2000 members attended Brazil's session introducing the STTI program. Those we spoke with thought it a great idea, but were sobered by the realization that a tough road lay ahead to bring the school to fruition. Several voiced the opinion that STTI has no hope of succeeding unless it receives certification from appropriate authorities. Funding also remains problematic.