A few days ago I found myself in a common situation. I was a potential customer looking for the right person to provide the service I needed, a repairman to fix an older refrigerator which I had already diagnosed as needing a new fan. A few years ago I had a bad experience with a large appliance repair company; the repairman had no idea what was wrong with a range whose oven would not heat, and was very attached to his attitude problem. The people in the office were also surly; it certainly was not their fault that the repairman had no clue, and so nothing could be done except to bill me for a service call where no service had been provided. I had heard good things about this company, but from friends who live in other towns. It seems that it is a franchise operation which is generally well thought of, but the local franchisee is the exception. I have since found both the repairman and the franchise holder named in reviews that were less than glowing.
At that time, I was able to find another repair service, a local one-man operation. Michael was fantastic. The range is in an apartment over my shop; it was installed a few years earlier when the apartment was renovated. After the renovation, the tenants were all single men. It was not until the mother of the current tenant came to visit that the problem manifested itself; the oven had never been used in five years, and the gas valve had not been turned on at the installation. Enough said. Since then, Michael has fixed a few appliances in the building, always polite, prompt, reasonable in his charges, and sensible. Alas, I found out this week that he is no longer in business, and calls to his office are referred to the large franchise operation.
The search for another repairman brought home to me how radically the way businesses reach potential customers has changed in a very short time. I spent most of my life as a consumer relying on the Yellow Pages when a referral by a trusted friend was unavailable. There was no guarantee of quality, but at least most, if not all, of the local options were presented in one place. Now the listings are sparse. Phone books and yellow pages are hardly touched and seem to be no more than a solid waste management problem to most people. I have cut my ads there to one line, for the occasional relic who may actually use the book for more than a booster seat. Even that expense is about to be eliminated. This week I explored the alternatives as a consumer rather than as a vendor, and gained some thought-provoking insights.
Having become newly tech savvy (see last week’s post here), I decided to check out on-line reviews of those repair businesses that are still listed in the paper phone book. (Angie’s List does not have any local listings for anything I have ever needed, so is not an option.) I started with Google reviews, and didn’t find much, except that the local franchise still has a repairman named “-----” and neither his skills nor his attitude have improved. But Google being Google, and perceiving that I was in need of a repairman, offered me several more possibilities.
The majority of the alternatives presented had links to Google+, Businessfinder.com, Yelp, Manta, and various other business listing services. When I followed them, I was asked to please claim this business if it was mine; in other words, there was no information beyond address and phone number (and a map, so I could take the refrigerator there.) But at least I had more names. Several of the sites list “similar businesses.” I recognized a name, and remembered hearing positive comments, so my search ended, at least until Tuesday when I will know if I have to start over.
As I pursued the elusive reliable repairman, I thought about how a customer looking for my business would proceed, and, as a business owner, how difficult it is today to “get the word out.” I am overwhelmed by the number of places available, many at no cost, to advertise my business on-line: Yelp, Manta, Google+, Facebook, and hundreds of other ways to put information in front of potential customers. From a business owner’s point of view, they are also all eaters of the scarcest resource, time. I wish I could afford a full time person to handle just this aspect of the business, and one person might not be adequate. It’s not enough to put a brilliant description of my charming shop out there. The listing needs to be updated and monitored for comments and questions. Responses may be required. Ignoring a customer’s interest or complaint is worse than never having had contact at all.
I question whether all this time and effort would be worthwhile. I think of my Facebook page and the realization that my posts there are seen by a small percentage of those who have “liked” it. I know that I don’t get every post from pages I am interested in, and have to go to the page to see what’s happening. If I am planning an event, and few see the post, it seems I have wasted time. I doubt that all who have “liked” my shop go to the page daily for updates. My best communication tool, an e-mail newsletter through Constant Contact, usually has an open rate of about 25%, which they tell me is above the industry average. 25% of the people who said they are interested in receiving the news, and signed up!
Not only are small businesses overwhelmed by the number of on-line marketing options available and the time it takes to use them, consumers are swamped by the number of sites they can visit, social media they can join, and e-mails they receive. Soon it all becomes a big jumble, and nothing stands out. A not unusual conversation in my shop:
Customer, seeing post-event display of an author’s book advertising signed copies: “Oh, I wish I had known that Author X was here; I would have enjoyed meeting her.”
Me: “Are you on our e-mail newsletter list?”
Me: “Have you liked our page on Facebook?”
Of course, there were also notices in the “Events” listing in the local newspaper and posters all over the shop and the town.
I don’t blame the customer for her lack of awareness. The deluge of marketing messages through multitudes of channels has made us all numb. As a consumer, I just want to “Find it Fast in the Yellow Pages.” As a business owner, I long for a single, simple, efficient way to communicate. We can all dream.