Call Yourself!
Are You Impossible to Reach?

Written by
Chief Technical Officer, Startupware.com

I’m surprised by basic web page failures among microISVs. I follow a link to a product I’ve heard about for years, or was recommended to me, and I see, well, crab grass. Or what’s left of the lawn has turned brown. No, wait, that’s another problem. Or is it?

We run software and technology businesses, and many of us are guilty of liking our technology so much, that we want to just do that. Be the programmer, all the time, and never delegate or outsource that work, and never move on to keeping our offices running. But that’s basic introduction to Management material; management isn’t production. Management is hiring, firing, delegation, training, and supervision, and making sure that everything else gets done, even if you have to outsource, hire, or do it yourself to make sure that everything gets done.

The common error in a small business is skipping supervision. “What! I work alone! I don’t need supervision!” Yeah, right. Unless you work off proper to-do lists that include double-checks that your systems are working, you aren’t supervising either your own workload, or your technology. For now, I’ll leave ‘supervising yourself’ as an exercise for the programmer; here’s the short version–make a list, and assign hours to each item. You can steal hours from each item if you have to, but can’t cut any category to zero. Especially not supervision, marketing, or bookkeeping.

Programmer, Phone Home!

But back to supervising your technology, as that’s what I see failing from the outside world; that’s what your customers see. Business management classes usually tell you: Call yourself! It’s really that simple. Pick up a phone and dial your number. No, that’s not it. Go to a search engine, find your web page, find your phone number, dial it, and leave a message. Oh, and do it from outside your office. Repeat it once a month, and repeat that for each of your contact methods. The first try might result in shock, however.

What you’re looking for are communication road blocks. A bad phone number, or none. Web mail pages that no longer work. Missing paper-mail addresses. A full phone mail box, or a generic answering service message. A web page that displays security warnings in WebOfTrust (mywot.com) or at SiteAdvisor.com. Web pages that go nowhere, or display badly on browsers you don’t use. Have you visited your sites from an iPAD yet? Sure you want to use Flash animation for your main welcome message? It’s not universal, never was, and the usage percentages are dropping now.

OOPS story 1: I visited a microISV’s web site to look at his product. His site shows up in Danish, with an English button, which refreshes the page and once again, shows me Danish. Nice site, but all I can read in Danish are the technology words that don’t normally get translated. The author doesn’t really visit his own site in English, apparently. And neither does anyone else. Lost sale.

OOPS story 2: I find someone on LinkedIn, I call their phone number, and it goes to voicemail, and the voicemail is full. Or their email bounces, unknown recipient. Lost opportunity.

OOPS story 3: OK, this one was me. I visit a friend, show them my website. It’s too wide to fit her low-resolution screen without scrolling; it doesn’t resize to fit the screen width. Lost readability.

OOPS story 4: I see a web URL in the email address of a contact, and look at the site. The site looks like it was created 12 years ago, the copyright date is 2003, and the web links go to ‘file:\\web\details.asp’. Web page closed, lost another sale.

OOPS story 5: Nice product site, no contact information on it. Nothing but links to a third-party sales company, maybe Paypal. No phone, email, webmail, or paper mail address, no hint of which time zone, continent, or star system is the closest. Sorry, I don’t buy anything from off-planet yet.

Right about now, I hear a few comments: “I can’t publish my phone number; I work from home,” or “I’m uncomfortable with spoken English for calls,” “I’m on the Pacific RIM and my time zone is very different from my customers,” or “I don’t want emails; just buy my product and leave me alone.” OK, your customers can and will buy from a company whose expectation of normal communications matches their own.

It’s OK to not have any one of these on your site: a phone number, or an email address, or a physical delivery address. It’s never OK to not have a mailing address (post office boxes are OK). It’s a bad idea to not have most of these:

Phone number: The phone number has to actually reach a message that identifies your company or main product. A generic message from an cell phone service that “555-1212 is not available. Please leave a message” is not acceptable. The phone number doesn’t have to actually ring (or wake you up on the far side of the planet), but it has to reliably take messages. The number doesn’t even have to be a device; a virtual phone number, like Google Voice, is perfectly OK; you can set virtual phones to ring at another number during some hours, and go directly to voicemail the rest of the time. Definitely list your office hours, and time zone, near your phone number.

Email address: There has to be a way to reach you by email on your web site. It doesn’t have to be a plain-text email address; a working web-mail form is OK.

Mailing address: Yes, your mailing address has to be on your web site. I have to teach end users about online security. I show them how to tell if an order page is encrypted, how to see who the company taking orders is, and sometimes how to look up the reputation of a site, or see if there are complaints. And I stress not ordering from companies that hide their locations. Look, I’m not going to show up at your door. (It’s happened to me, once, and that character did buy software, but it took an hour to get him out the door again, and I can’t work an hour for a $20 sale. And that’s why I use a post office box.) But if you hide your city and country, you aren’t going to get sales from your neighbors–remember that all search engines are moving towards ‘local results first.’ And you won’t get orders from anyone who knows that in case an online order fails, there has to be a way to reach someone to fix things.

Again, I hear cries of despair: But I’m in Lower Slobbovia! Or for those who haven’t heard of it, East Elbonia is pretty much the same. It’s somewhere you won’t admit you’re from. Perhaps the real problem isn’t that your offices are remote–I’ve done business with great companies on six continents. The good ones aren’t hiding their locations. Companies that hide their locations are automatically suspicious–what else is hidden in their software?

Web sites: All of your web sites must work, in all the major browsers. If you sell Mac software, they had better work perfectly when viewed from an iPAD. Preferably, every domain you use should have a really sharp and good looking web site. But if you have a domain you haven’t touched in years, and can’t be bothered to update it, then redirect that domain to your best web site. Kill the old site, move on, and don’t leave straggler web sites lying around. If you must leave an old site un-updated, run a link checker on it and fix whatever is broken.

Don’t skip any steps on these checks. It really does work best if you leave your office, and then try to communicate from the outside world. Then you see that your web site has the wrong country code on the phone number, or it doesn’t display properly on other browsers, or it’s blocked by web security software, or the links are local and broken. Or one browser is flagging a site certificate as bad, or a security toolbar is popping warnings.

It’s the equivalent in a big company of dialing the main switchboard, trying to get past the phone board, past the executive assistant to the vice president, and actually having an executive listen to you long enough to hear the 10-second version of what you’re selling. Sales pitches don’t work without communication; don’t lose your sale because you can’t be reached.

About the Author: Jerry Stern is the ASP’s Web Content Manager, runs Startupware.com and PC410.com, and is online at Sciencetranslations.com.