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    Using the Internet for Service Exporting: Tips for Service Firms

     

     
     
    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 1/1999

    The Internet can help service firms in developing and transitional economies exactly where they need it most. It helps them overcome two of the biggest barriers they face: gaining credibility in international markets; and travel costs and restrictions that impede export market development.

    Credibility. Little-known firms can become instantly "visible" if they use the Internet wisely. Even a small firm can develop a polished and sophisticated web presence and promotion strategy. Another advantage: potential customers are less concerned about geographic location if they feel the firm is electronically accessible.

    Travel. On-line visibility can elicit invitations to visit as well as eliminate the need for travel, once customers are comfortable with service delivery over the Internet. An increasing number of service providers have never met their foreign customers except "virtually" on-line.

    Why use the Internet?

    In short, the Internet can help your firm export successfully in five ways:

    • Basic communications;

    • Promoting capabilities;

    • Market information;

    • Generating sales;

    • Delivering services.

    Basic communications

    The Internet can facilitate "location neutral" communication with customers, suppliers, strategic partners, and travelling staff. E-mail, telephony (telephone service over the Internet), and video conferencing support real-time interactive communications worldwide. Communications use of the Internet can result in significant savings and is rapidly becoming the primary mode of communication in the global business world. Internet service providers (ISPs) are supporting easy use of the Internet through tools such as automated mail responders (mailbots), which act like a fax-back system and allow automatic distribution of electronic versions of promotional material, samples of work, and brochures upon request.

    Promoting your capabilities

    The Internet offers many ways to promote your capabilities and build your firm's reputation. Because the culture of the Internet is based on the free exchange of information, you can readily participate in news groups and on-line conferences, launch inexpensive mass marketing

    initiatives, or develop a web site to heighten your credibility. This has to be done carefully, however, as blatant advertising or self-promotion will not be appreciated by the on-line community- including your potential customers.

    News groups

    You can build credibility as an expert by using news groups. More than 10 million people participate in news groups, which are generally free or low cost. Usenet news groups are hierarchical and arranged by subject. They are dedicated to the discussion of a particular topic (of which there are estimated to be more than 100,000). They can be an effective way to establish yourself as an expert by providing thoughtful, value-added comments and responses to the questions and opinions of other users.

    Direct marketing with mailing lists

    E-mail address lists can be used to promote your services, advertise awards or upcoming events, or solicit new customers. Mailing lists can be an inexpensive way to reach large numbers of target customers, especially for a mass market approach (for non-customized services).

    They are generally organized by subject matter and, when you post a message to a particular mailing list, it is sent out to everyone who has subscribed to that list. Note that some receivers, however, may perceive your message as "junk mail."

    There are three types of lists: moderated (screened) lists, unmoderated lists, and digests (a compilation of messages, rather than many individual e-mails).

    You can also generate your own mailing list by selecting e-mail addresses from your contact database, registration on your web site, subscription to your electronic newsletter, etc. If you do create your own mailing list, increase your response rate by ensuring that all replies will be confidential, and guaranteeing that you will not distribute respondents' e-mail addresses.

    Industry homepages (association or government web sites)

    Many industry associations and government trade agencies are developing on-line directories highlighting their member firms' capabilities. You can create a link from the agency web site to your own web site, and/or create a webpage on the industry homepage site.

    You benefit from the low cost and time investment (relative to setting up your own web site). Your contribution will be based on a standard template. You will have low design and set-up costs, minimal maintenance responsibilities, and no technical expertise required. On the other hand, you have no control over the design and presentation, a limited ability to customize your material, and no capability to interact with customers.

    Creating your own homepage

    There were over 230 million web sites by the end of 1997 and more are being added by the minute. With the advent of Java and HTML programming language, building a homepage is now within the technical grasp of most companies. However, it takes significant resources to properly design and maintain an on-line presence. Developing a web site must be undertaken in the context of your firm's overall business goals in order to maximize the return on investment.

    Having your own web site (rather than just a webpage on someone else's site) allows you to adapt your material over time based on customer feedback, link your web site to complementary sites, and add value to the services you provide. On the other hand, web sites take time and resources to develop, as well as dedicated resources to maintain.

    Many web design firms, as well as Internet Service Providers, can help you develop a web site. Many governments and associations also have subsidy programmes to help offset set-up costs. Whichever method you choose, senior management should be committed to maintaining the site, as they might for other strategic exporting efforts.

    Gathering market information

    The Internet is a rich resource for information on your markets, competitors, and customers. With training in Internet search techniques, you can design targeted searches on specific topics.

    Market research

    While there are commercially available market research services, you can conduct a great deal of your own research using popular search engines (see box).

    On-line bidding

    Many governments and large organizations post bidding requests electronically, to encourage fairness and transparency in the bidding process. Establish a regular monitoring process to identify the ones

    of most interest to your firm (see also pages 24-26).

    Partner search

    To identify strategic partners, there are numerous government and association sites that support searches for firms of complementary strengths (e.g., ITC's Services Exporting Homepage http://stage.intracen.org/servicexport/). These can be found using search engines and by monitoring the web pages of associations. It is important to develop a capabilities profile of your own form to post on these electronic bulletin boards, clearly stating what you are looking for in a partner.

    Customer feedback

    Your web site can capture valuable customer and supplier feedback on your services. Bulletin boards, chat groups, on-line conferences, and direct e-mail links are examples of mechanisms to collect customer feedback. You can also use news groups and mailing lists to post questions to your customers and solicit their responses.

    Generating sales

    Advances in encryption technology have made financial transactions over the Internet secure for consumers. Retail, travel, and financial industries have been quick to capitalize on electronic commerce. Many other service industries, however, could also promote and sell their services via the Internet.

    The more customized the service is, the more difficult it is to sell it directly over the Internet. For example, for a customized service like management consulting or legal services, clients decide based on the reputation of individuals and not solely on a web site, no matter how professionally presented. For a standard service like travel, clients are more comfortable purchasing electronically. They may comparison shop on-line, but then purchase directly.

    Service delivery

    Some services are well-suited for actual delivery over the Internet. The cycle of promotion, design, client communications, delivery, and follow-up can be conducted electronically. You can reap significant cost savings by reducing travel to a client to market and deliver a service.

    Dorothy Riddle is an ITC consultant on services export development (e-mail: driddle@compuserve.com)

    TIPS:

    E-mail Netiquette

    Unwritten "Rules of the Road"

    Electronic mail is the most frequent use of the Internet. While first-time users may view it as impersonal, users grow to appreciate its speed and convenience.

    E-mail can be used to transmit text, data, graphics, sound, and video.

    Initially, the concern was connectivity: did the other party have e-mail? Now the challenge is being "heard" when users are deluged with 50-100 e-mail messages each day.

    DOs

    • Make your Subject Line clear.

    • Keep the message short and stay on one topic.

    • Personalize your message to the receiver.

    • Reply promptly (within 24 hours) to messages.

    • Use customized signature (sig.) files. Automatically added at the end of your messages, they can include name, title, contact information, and a short tag line if desired.

    • Use the automatic response feature when you are away, so that senders know when to expect you back or whom to contact in the interim.

    • Be courteous.

    • Use good grammar and spell check your message.

    • For mass mailings, use the "blind copy" feature.

    • Only post ads where they are welcome.

    DON'Ts

    • Don't use CAPITALS, as this is the equivalent of shouting on the Internet.

    • Don't send attachments or complex graphics without permission; they can take a long time to download.

    • Avoid spamming, the equivalent of "junk mail".

    Your Internet Strategy

    Given the many activities and corporate functions that you can perform through the Internet, it is critical that you:

    • Closely examine your primary business objectives.

    • Identify the technological capabilities and preferences of your customers.

    • Analyze your service delivery process to determine which options provide the most competitive advantage.

    Driving Traffic to Your Website

    Design

    • Design the site to support your objectives.

    • Get professional design advice.

    • Ensure that the site reinforces your desired corporate image.

    • Don't make your site rich in graphics, to avoid downloading delays and visitor frustration.

    • Ensure it is accessible 24 hours/day.

    • Engage customers in a dialogue.

    • Fine-tune your content for each visitor. (Integrate a personal preference database into your site).

    • Keep your site updated, to retain a freshness factor.

    • Give your site entertainment value.

    • Keep your tone conversational in style.

    • Evaluate your site to ensure it is meeting your expectations.

    Launch

    • Market the presence of your site through other promotional materials.

    • Register your site on common search engines; get listed on "What's New" sites.

    • Plan a web site "launch" to invite clients to view the site. Send out press releases; send messages to e-mail news groups; send announcements to newsletters (printed and electronic) and mailing lists; advertise in "What's New" sites; attract banner advertising; send direct mail announcements; add a note to signature (sig.) files.

    • Provide gifts and giveaways during launch activities.

    Links

    • Ensure that you are "well-linked" from other relevant sites.

    • Position "outbound links" 2-3 layers down in your site, to ensure that visitors see all that you have to offer.

    • Once another site has agreed to provide a link to your sites, provide them with your icon in correct web file formats (*.gif or *.jpg format for graphics and HTML for text). Within the HTML include a tag line that entices people to click on your link.

    • Check your links regularly.

    Encourage repeat visits

    • Include a What's New page.

    • Maintain a current calender of events for your industry.

    • List employment opportunities.

    • Maintain useful links from your site.

    • Provide on-line chat sessions/bulletin board.

    • Post a tip of the day/week/month.

    • Show surveys and results.

    Maintenance

    • Keep your site "evergreen" by updating it regularly.

    • Decide whether you want to maintain your site in-house or contract it out.

    • Respond to web site e-mails within 48 hours.

    News Groups-To Build Credibility

    Monitoring news groups is time consuming, so choose news group(s) carefully. As with e-mail, overt advertising is not appropriate. Here are some tips for successful news group participation:

    • Monitor each news group initially to see if it will be worthwhile.

    • "Lurk" (read without posting any messages or response) until you understand the preferences and standards of the news group because they are all different.

    • Use sig. files to increase your visibility, customizing your tag line to be relevant to the focus of the news group.

    • Only post a message when you have true value to add to the discussion.

    Direct Marketing with Electronic Mailing Lists

    If you are going to use mailing lists, here are some tips:

    • Choose a list whose subscribers closely fit your target group (e.g., government procurement officers if you are selling GIS systems to municipalities).

    • "Lurk" for at least two weeks to monitor the behaviour and standards of a mailing list before posting a message.

    • Test any bulk e-mails on a "friendly audience" before sending them "live".

    • Carefully compose the subject line to encourage readers to open your message.

    • Ensure that your message is "on subject."

    • Have a "call to action" in your message to encourage readers to respond or visit your site, and then have a process in place to track any responses you receive.

    • Use a sig. file so that your message is easily identified.

    • Observe the same netiquette rules as outlined for e-mail communication.

    If you are looking for web sites with mailing lists, here are some examples. They are generally organized by topic.

    • Liszt http://www.liszt.com

    • The List of Publicly Available Mailing Lists http://www.neosoft.com/internet/paml.

    • Post Master Direct Response http://www.postmasterdirect.com

    "What's New" Sites

    These sites advertise new web sites:

    Netscape's What's New http://netscape.com/home/whats-new.html

    Site Launch http://www.sitelaunch.net/

    Epage Classified http://op.com

    Open Market http://www.directory.net

    Net-Happenings Newsletter http://www.mid.net/NET

    Net Surfer Digest http://www.netsurfer.com/nsd/index.html

    Use Search Engines for Market Research

    Alta Vista http://altavista.digital.com

    Excite Inc. http://www.excite.com

    Hot Bot http://www.hotbot.com

    Infoseek http://www.infoseek.com

    Lycos Inc. http://www.lycos.com

    Meta-Crawler http://www.metacrawler.com

    Northern Lights http://www.nlsearch.com

    Webcrawler http://webcrawler.com

    Yahoo! Inc. http://www.yahoo.com

    Choosing an Information Service Provider

    Given the explosion in Information Service Providers (ISPs) around the world, it is important to choose your ISP carefully. There is a trend towards On-line Service Providers (OSPs) which supply value-added services including content, web site design, and other services in addition to basic Internet access. The following are questions to consider:

    • Do you offer flat-fee service?

    • How many hours of access do I receive per month within the basic fee structure?

    • How many users can I add per modem line without additional charges?

    • Is a free homepage included in your basic subscription fee?

    • Do you offer 24-hour technical support? In what languages? How long is the average wait to speak to a real person?

    • When I travel, will I be able to receive local dial-in access? Roaming services?

    • Do you offer an executive news service?

    • Do I receive free Internet browser software with my subscription?

    • Do you offer/include e-mail and Internet research training?

    • How often can I expect to receive a busy signal during dial-in? What are your peak usage times?

    • What is your network utilization ratio?

    • How fast is your e-mail delivery?



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