Innovation

Why Should the Customer Come to You?

Savvy companies offer their services online. How to capitalize on the virtual trend

Written by mira.shenker@profit.rogers.com

You’re perched on your hands and feet in a classic pushup. Your muscles ache as you drop down; sweat beads on your forehead. You desperately want to quit, but your trainer is relentless.

“Tighten that core!” he barks, attempting to correct your slackening form. “Four more reps!”

Sound like a typical (if brutal) personal-training session? There is a difference: you’re in your living room, and your trainer—located somewhere hours away—is instructing you from your laptop screen.

Welcome to Wello.co, a San Francisco-based website that delivers personal-trainer services to time-pressed workout junkies via two-way video conference. Clients get a good deal (rates are about 75% of standard gym fees) and the convenience of working out anywhere with high-speed Internet. Trainers don’t have to hustle for clients or travel between sessions. And Wello gets a cut of each transaction.

Wello has been around only since last summer, but co-founder Leslie Silverglide says two-thirds of its surging client base use it regularly. Just months after launching, Wello raised US$1 million in venture capital.

The company’s early success shows consumers’ growing comfort in interacting with service providers through a screen. “People use web video for so many things now—to chat with family or for work,” explains Silverglide. “It’s integrated into their lives in a way it wasn’t before.”

Read Could Your Company Be Virtual?

Companies have been delivering services virtually—that is, without in-person interaction—since the birth of the telephone. But with today’s robust Internet technology and changing consumer habits, firms in industries as varied as law and home maintenance can deliver all or some of their ser- vices via web or mobile interface. Factor in cost savings that can beef up your mar- gins—or, if passed along to clients, your market share—and you have a mighty attractive proposition.

The entire world is your market, and you can take on more business in a day.

The very notion of delivering services virtually wouldn’t be feasible for most companies without the recent explosion in affordable communications technology. For meetings, there are countless video conferencing tools available; many, including Skype, FaceTime and Google Hangouts, are free. Popular cloud-based storage services (Google Drive or Dropbox among them) encourage quick and easy collaboration on documents, and cost little, if anything. Even proprietary tools designed to meet more rigorous business security demands have dropped in price as more competitors have entered the field.

This technology is enabling clients to do with the click of a mouse what once chewed up hours in logistics. “It’s more cost-effective and efficient to deliver ser- vices online,” says Karna Gupta, president and CEO of the Information Technology Association of Canada.

That’s partly because delivering services virtually reduces transportation costs and overhead. But there are other savings, too, says Ron Cenfetelli, an associate professor specializing in human/computer inter- action and e-business at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. “It also increases reach; with virtual technology, the entire world is your potential market,” he says. “And it allows a certain degree of scale, as well; you can take on more business in a day.”

Perhaps surprisingly, this hands-off approach doesn’t necessarily dilute the customer experience. There was a time when most buyers,

especially in the B2B sphere, put heavy stock in chummy supplier relationships. Today, the average business purchaser, burdened by budgetary and manpower constraints, is likely to prefer a quick, cheap transaction over one with lots of face time.

Consumers are even more at ease with virtual services and transactions. Having become accustomed to interacting via Twitter and text messages, and conditioned by e-commerce to expect speed and convenience, buyers will increasingly prefer to deal remotely with merchants and service providers, experts predict. “The younger generation especially is very comfortable interacting with others virtually,” explains James Bowen, an adjunct professor at the Telfer School of Management in Ottawa who specializes in IT and entrepreneurship. “It saves them time and effort, and increases the number of people they can interact with.”

Andrew Angus, who runs Switch Video, a Collingwood, Ont.-based producer of animated promotional films, estimates that 95% of his firm’s projects have been delivered without any in- person interaction with clients—which include such powerhouses as IBM and American Express. Switch solicits storyboard suggestions from customers through web questionnaires and conference calls, not through boardroom brainstorming meetings.

Clients comment on iterations of videos using Google Docs, and the final file is revealed via a web link. “You wouldn’t think a creative agency could transfer a client’s complex business idea into a video without meeting them in person,” says Angus, “but we’ve done it for more than 300 clients.”

While Switch’s employees always offer to meet in person for sales and development meetings, Angus says, they’re almost always turned down; clients simply prefer the convenience of online interaction. “On their end, it’s a more efficient way to do things,” he says. “There’s confidence and trust in the technology now.”

What types of companies can benefit from going virtual? The biggest opportunity lies in services for which clients tend to dread the face-to-face: Bowen lists legal advice, broker services and the administration of government licences. Demand is also strong for personal or professional ser- vices that have traditionally involved expensive, time-consuming meetings. In the U.S., upstarts such as Preply, Breakthrough and Speexx are capitalizing on this need (in the tutoring, psychological counselling and language-instruction fields, respectively). Even hands-on specialists such as contractors (think: electricians or plumbers) and health-care professionals (dermatologists, physical therapists) can use web tools to consult with clients or even walk them through basic procedures.

If the idea of serving your clients via a screen strikes you as odd or overly impersonal, you are dangerously out of step with the increasingly tech-driven zeitgeist. Experts agree that the virtual trend is accelerating quickly. Look no further than Silverglide’s success with Wello. “When we told people about our idea a few years ago, they looked at us like we were batty,” she says. “Now, they say, €˜Oh, that makes a ton of sense’.”

Read about inexpensive online resources to run your business cost effectively

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com