Is e-commerce right for your business? Often, the answer is a vehement "No!" especially if you're selling a highly specialized product or service. Many businesses can't be commoditized, or put into a narrow basis of comparison for price or features.

It's one matter if you're comparing resin prices, or labor rates for secretarial help, or manufacturing-plant square-footage costs; another entirely if you want to look at highly technical synthesis programs or discuss sensitive issues about management personnel or corporate finance. The latter is best left to more conventional means: personal contact or a telephone call.

That's not to say that a commercial Web site is only viable with e-commerce! In many cases, it's imperative to have a Web site, especially if your business needs to reach clearly defined customers around the world. A Web site provides several key benefits for technical-service businesses:

  • It establishes credibility. The business is available for inspection anytime on the Web.
  • It enables customers to find your particular expertise. For some specialties, Web searches are big timesavers.
  • It provides essential contact information, such as an address and telephone number. Make sure these are featured prominently on the home page.
Don't underestimate the value of establishing credibility on the Web. It is used as a means to compare claims made in person with something available to the general public.

Those of us with long memories (or with children who like a good bedtime story) may recall the Dr. Seuss classic Horton Hatches a Who. The climax of the story centers around the tiny Who creatures shouting "We are here!" and staving off likely oblivion. In a very real sense, that's exactly what a specialty technical-service organization does on the Web: announces existence. The mere presence of credible information is enough to impart validity to the organization.

Does this make a company any more or less valid? Of course not - but then a customer's perception is everything. If you're perceived to be valid, you establish credibility.

TASC is a well-known placement service in the adhesives and sealants industry. Its simple Web site effectively provides essential information to candidates and clients.

Avoid 'Field of Dreams' Mentality

There was a fallacy among Web users several years ago that the mere existence of a Web site would ensure traffic (and profits). That was widely known as "Field of Dreams" marketing, named for the film that gave us the gloriously optimistic phrase, "If you build it, they will come." The demise of many e-solutions Web sites that were built without a specific benefit in mind - something that a customer truly needed and that could not be obtained more efficiently in some other venue - emphasized the misguided approach to easy e-profits. In some cases, though, people will come to a Web site, provided you have very reasonable expectations for a simple Web presence and you offer something unique.

This past April, I spoke to the Chemical Consultants network in Philadelphia about Web marketing. What impressed me was the number of consultants who were actively using the net to promote their businesses: more than 80% had some sort of Web presence and most promoted their Web presence through mailings, information links and other low-key methods. They noted that they received a significant amount of business - enough to more than justify their Web investments - from people who needed their specialized services.

Search-Engine Savvy

The most frequently cited Web search engine for technical specialists was Google (; the group noted that a high placement in Google helped them reach the right audience. Target audiences included manufacturers that needed highly specialized expertise, attorneys who needed expert opinions and project managers who needed independent verification of projects.

This was a surprise. Most businesses do not have particularly great success with search engines and nominally publicized Web sites since consumers have many options beyond the Web. In this case, though, the services were so highly specialized (and desirable) that customers would seek out information, and the Web was an ideal way to find specialized information quickly. The narrower the niche, and the greater the demand for a solution to a particular problem, the more likely it is that a Web site will produce results.

Never underestimate the power of the obvious. Many people will search the Web with a particular mission: finding accurate contact information. It's surprising how often this data is buried on a contacts page or in microscopic type at the bottom of a page. Your address and telephone number shouldn't be trade secrets: make them appear in large type on your home page. Subtlety isn't a virtue on the net: ClickZ Networks has reported that the average consumer gives a Web page 11 seconds to appear completely and seven seconds for the type to surface. Any longer and customers leave the page. If your customers perceive the Web to be a timesaver, don't disabuse them of this belief with slow-loading pages and obscure information.