Get on the IM-voice bandwagon

Why eBay and Skype will change online marketing

One area in which small businesses can far outshine their big dog competitors? Responsiveness to current and potential customers. For businesses that sell products or services to the public, you want to reassure potential customers and keep in touch with current ones. That's why eBay is buying Skype.

Is that a left turn? Not when you realize that eBay, like Amazon, now acts as the storefront for thousands of small and midsize retail businesses. No longer is eBay just a giant electronic garage sale, it's now a giant global electronic marketplace.

When dealing with a company they can't see and a salesperson whose hand they can't shake, what do people want the most? Assurance that they're not getting cheated. They want to know the seller exists and is not just a mail drop and black hole for their check or credit card.

An earlier move by eBay, buying PayPal last year, helped assure customers. Unfortunately, fraud prevention through PayPal, and money recovery when defrauded, remains tough in some circumstances. Hence the next step by eBay: Skype.

I've advocated before that retailers put a "Skype Me" button on their Web pages, and have at least one person online to answer questions whenever possible. Cost? Zero because Skype costs nothing. OK, you may have to buy a computer headset to communicate clearly, but you can easily find a good deal online, right?

Big companies always plastered 800 numbers on their Web sites, but those cost money. Sometimes they cost a lot of money, so much that companies outsource customer contact to call centers in other countries. What happens then? Many customers hang up unsatisfied.

Small companies couldn't afford 800 numbers in the past, so customers couldn't easily call them. Although the broadband phone companies have cut that cost considerably, home businesses may not want to give out a phone number, especially when it can be tracked to their home.

Enter Skype and eBay. This partnership will likely result in certified eBay resellers providing instant messaging and VoIP contact points. A single Skype account rings at every computer system where the Skype user is present, as in logged in and active on their computer. You can have one Skype username ring on three or four computers if you like, so people can go to the bathroom without leaving the number unattended. And if the person takes off for a few minutes, Skype's optional voice messaging now works well.

If you sell products aimed at consumers in their 20s and younger, adding IM support will boost your marketing presence. Young people prefer IM over e-mail. A 25-year-old purchasing clerk will send e-mails at work, but focus completely on IM when she gets home. If you want to sell to that 25-year-old female consumer, IM will help. Voice over IM - whether through Skype, MSN, Yahoo or AOL - will help even more.

Common complaints about Internet telephony like Skype include "I don't wanna be stuck on my computer all day." What glares back at you at your desk already? A computer. "I don't wanna wear a headset." Plantronics (.com) for one has made millions selling headsets for traditional phones, meaning millions of users, especially those in front of computers, already use headsets. New USB headsets make adding a headset to your computer a snap.

I predict that before the Christmas selling season starts in earnest, a large number of eBay retailers will have Skype Me buttons for voice and instant messaging. I predict small retailers who don't sell on eBay will do the same, if they're smart.

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