House calls: There's no place like home

Written by Eleanor Beaton

Looking for an opportunity to differentiate yourself from the competition? Go home — to your customer’s home, that is. More and more businesses are heading directly to their clients’ homes to deliver services. Call it the “in-homing” of business. From chefs who do your grocery shopping and come to your home to cook family meals to tailors who measure your inseam in your living room, savyy business owners are waking up to the benefits of serving customers where they live. In some cases, it might be their best chance to catch today’s uber-occupied consumers.

What’s driving this trend, for one thing, is the rise of online shopping, which is forcing offline companies to differentiate themselves with better service, says Alan Middleton, a professor of marketing at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto. But he also points to the lack of time and the abundance of money among young, working couples — who are, anecdotally, the largest consumers of in-home services. According to data from Statistics Canada, in 2005, the average Canadian worker had 40 minutes less free time daily than he did 20 years earlier, and the shortage is encouraging more consumers to cross items off their to-do lists without ever leaving home. That’s why TD Canada Trust has had to increase its number of mobile mortgage specialists from 300 five years ago to 800 today, says Mark Clearihue, TD’s vice-president of personal lending sales. The mobile workers account for roughly 30% of TD’s mortgage business, a number the company believes will rise to 50% by 2013.

Meanwhile, consumers also have a bit more money than they used to, thanks to rising income levels among dual-income households. According to Statistics Canada, the average married couple brought in 22% more money in 2007 than they did a decade earlier (although that’s not adjusted for inflation). And while some of that extra cash might be earmarked for necessities, such as home-delivered groceries, Kenneth Wong, a marketing professor at the Queen’s School of Business in Kingston, Ont., says entrepreneurs would do well to focus on personal services, where in-homing is still a rarity. “Consumers may even enjoy some services more if they’re offered at home,” says Wong.

Offering in-home service eliminates a major source of stress for clients, say Marney Weatherby, founder of London, Ont.-based Spa at Home, which provides massage, spa and esthetic services to people in their homes. “They don’t have to worry about babysitters or finding parking,” she says. “They can just focus on the service.”

What’s more, Weatherby says, she’s one of the only at-home spa providers in her market, compared to stiff competition among spas with storefronts. Since she launched as the company’s sole employee in 2007, revenue has tripled and she has hired 16 massage therapists and estheticians to meet demand. In the past year, Weatherby has also fielded several inquiries about franchising opportunities.

Products and services for teens and young adults represent another untapped in-homing opportunity because those groups expect hyper-convenience. “This is a generation accustomed to instant gratification online,” says Len Preeper, president of Thinkwell Research, a Halifax-based market-research firm. “For services that can’t be delivered online, the logical progression is to provide them in-home.” Think: home-shopping parties, fittings for sports equipment or even in-home career counselling for this demographic.

If you’re launching an in-home business, finding the right employees could be your biggest challenge. You need to hire staff with strong people skills, says Weatherby: “Clients are letting you into their space. You need to find people who will respect boundaries.”

Weatherby trains her staff to take an interest in clients but without being overly nosy about family pictures, living arrangements or other aspects of their personal lives. Having a clear safety policy is also essential. Weatherby’s employees call head office as soon as they arrive at an appointment and once they have completed it, and have carte blanche to leave immediately should they feel unsafe.

Finally, hire staff who have flexible schedules and won’t mind arranging theirs to meet clients’ needs. “This is not a 9 to 5 service; it’s a 24/7 service,” says Clearihue. If your staff think it’s inconvenient to meet a client at 8:30 p.m., they aren’t a good fit. After all, in-homing isn’t about meeting your customers halfway; it’s about meeting them whenever, and wherever, they want.

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