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April. 12,  ISSUE #117
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When starting a business or web site on the Internet, it is often easy to become intimidated by large companies or web sites offering similar services to you. While you may not be able to match the million dollar advertising budgets, or employee numbers of your competitors, there are many things you can do to make your business or web site stand out from the rest. The aim of this article is to provide you with an approach, and the motivation to take on those competitors you never thought you could match!

Throughout the rest of this article, I will be using the example of a hypothetical small web hosting company called "Host-It". As you may or may not know, the web hosting industry is an incredibly competitive market, which makes it an excellent example for this article. With the huge amount of large, well established companies active in the industry, it would be incredibly easy for a small company such as Host-It to be swallowed and taken under in the first few months of operation. We will explore some of the tactics directors of Host-It may use in order to gain some kind of advantage over their large competitors.


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What do customers want?

It is important to get back to basics and ask yourself "What is it that customers purchasing this service require?". Knowing some of the decisive factors in customers choices is very important. If you know what your customers want, you may be able to tailor your marketing strategies to emphasise these areas.

Making a list:
In our example of the Host-It company, directors may come up with the following list (after researching customer needs) of six features customers desire in a web host.

1. Excellent support
2. Package features (eg. disk quotas, email boxes, monthly bandwidth)
3. Special language support (eg. ASP, Perl, PHP, C++)
4. Reasonable pricing
5. Easy account management
6. Reliability

After reviewing this list, Host-It directors could choose areas they believe their big company competitors are lacking. These areas would then become areas of focus for both product development and marketing.

The first item in the list (Excellent support) is often an area big companies leave a lot to be desired. This opens the door to create a major selling point for the Host-It service. The reasonably simple task of ensuring the timely response to queries could have customers singing your praises, generating a lot of new business.

Suggestion: If it is feasible for your business, setting up an account on one (or some) of the major instant messaging programs (eg. ICQ, Yahoo IM) can leave an excellent impression on customers. Think how happy you would be receiving a reply to a query almost instantly!

Getting Info for the List:
You may be asking just where you are expected to get such information about your customers needs. Below is a short list of suggestions to get you started.

* Survey customers.
* Participate in discussion groups relating to the subject. You will often find forums around the Internet with real customers discussing what they like and dislike about certain products and services. Participating in these discussions may also get you business!
* Visit web sites and read newsletters which deal with the subject.
* Put yourself in your customers shoes and look at it from their perspective.


Personalize your Service

I don't know about you, but I find it much more appealing when I can actually talk to the owner or employees of a business throughout the use of their service. A personal response to an order beats auto responders any day!

There are many aspects needed to be considered when personalizing a service. Listening to user feedback, being available to talk and offering opinions on different issues all contribute to personalizing a service. The common goal of many of these aspects is to build trust with your customers.

Building trust with your customers is an incredibly important, and often underestimated, aspect which must be considered. To put it simply, no one is going to buy anything from you on the Internet if they do not trust you. Personalizing a service is an excellent way of gaining this customer trust.

Our Host-It team may decide to incorporate some of the following things to help personalize their service and gain trust from customers.

- On sign up, Host-It should ensure customers have the contact information for appropriate personnel to voice their queries or comments. This information should be presented in a way which welcomes customer interaction.
- Every so often, Host-It directors should contact customers personally to make sure everything is going well and answer any queries they may have. Many customers will not go out of their way to give feedback unless asked specifically.
-Keep customers informed of updates, changes and upcoming services
-Give explanations for any down-time which may occur
-Provide an area for customers to give feedback and talk with each other.

Charge Reasonable Prices

The last point I am going to make in this article, is that you must charge reasonable prices. Although you may not be able to match the extremely low prices of big companies in some industries, it is important that you do not over-charge your customers. Nothing scares customers off quicker than ridiculously high prices.

If you use the techniques described in this article, customers may not mind paying that little bit extra. Especially if it is going to get them a service which the big competitors do not provide so well.

In conclusion, the best thing you can do as a small business or web site starting out on the Internet is to understand your customers and their needs. You must exploit the advantages many small businesses have over large companies. Using the techniques outlined in this article, along with your own initiative and creativity, will help you gain respect, build a reputation and hopefully reach your goals!


About the Author: By Brad Culbert

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