Webmasters and business processes

* Some techs not only understand business, they help you grow and protect yours

Where do smart small business owners go for business services and coaching today? Their technology service providers. Your best compliance manager or marketing specialist may be the person offering you Web hosting and development services.

This isn't a trend from some huge IT market study, but simply a byproduct of a growing trust between forward-thinking technology service providers and their customers. Since technology drives most business processes today, this trend will accelerate.

John Locke runs Seattle-based Freelock Computing, specializing in open source consulting, Web application and development, and Linux server administration and management. He looked up one day and realized what he originally planned to do for customers changed dramatically over the past year or so.

"We do an onsite needs assessment for potential customers to see what they have and what they want,” he says. “Now we're looking at everything, including marketing, sales, financial, and every other business process."

Locke focuses on open source software, and many customers are looking for cost-effective software. If you aren’t familiar with the open source options for marketing, sales, and financial management you may be amazed if you talk with an expert (or check out Locke's book, "Open Source Solutions for Small Business Problems" published by Charles River Media).

"Our customers just want the job done and don't care about the technology," says Locke. "They already outsource accounting and legal services, for example, so outsourcing tech makes sense to most of them."

Locke expanded his "tailored hosting" services from Web and e-mail hosting to backup of database files and e-mail archiving. He handles all server management issues, but offers ways for customers to update their own Web site content. One customer needed e-mails from seven months back for a regulatory compliance problem, and Locke found and restored them. If you've ever tried to find a few e-mails from half a year back, you know that's not easy.

Interestingly, Locke now finds the best way to help customers is to give them fewer options. "I limit their choices and make it easier for customers to choose." Knowing a customer's business, and gaining the trust of that customer over time, makes it possible to reduce the world of technology down to the appropriate choices for customers. "Most customers want to know the two or three things they can do today to really help their bottom line."

Sandi Smith expanded her Web site programming business to include marketing, business coaching, and content creation. Every business wants more customers, and Smith's tag is "Get more business from your Web site" at SandiSmithDesign.

While many developers use Search Engine Optimization (SEO) as the mantra of success, Smith looks at 25 different areas of each customer Web site. SEO is one component, but there are many ways to make a site more effective. One critical component is training customers to understand marketing so they can take advantages of opportunities everywhere.

"People who go ahead and learn the basics about marketing do better than those who don't," says Smith. "They can maximize their marketing effectiveness."

Small businesses are often surprised to learn how much money they can make from the Web site, even if they don't do traditional e-commerce. "If a cold call comes in because your Web site did a good job marketing, do you consider that e-commerce?" asks Smith. If not, I believe you should.

The old joke about advertising is that half your advertising money is wasted, but no one can tell you which half. Smart Web marketers can narrow down your "good" marketing programs and track what works and what doesn't far more accurately than a coin flip like the advertising joke. But that takes time, effort, and a willingness to experiment in order to grow your business.

Even if your favorite tech doesn't consider himself or herself a business expert, they see many businesses each week. Ask them what their other customers are doing to save time or make money that you aren't doing. You may be surprised at how a small technology change can make big business difference.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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