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Web sites combine with high-tech consumers to lend credibility and familiarity to companies


Chris Seper
Plain Dealer Reporter

Ben Williams Sr. knows that some customers put "trust" and "auto repair" together as often as he'll connect a radio to the gas tank.

So to comfort skeptical customers, the owner of Ben's Carstar Auto Body lets people watch him work via his shop's Web site, Benscarstar.com. Each repair job gets a section of his site that includes a daily picture, a message on what's happening to the car that day, and the e-mail address for the lead technician.

"With new customers, it gives me credibility," Williams said. "One of the biggest problems is the image of our industry. You hear stories of people's cars being joy rided in - they're told their car is being repaired when it's not. Here, [customers are] given visibility [so] they can actually see their automobile being repaired and being worked on."
Companies like Williams', which previously didn't bother with a complex Web site, today are finding more and more online services they can use to connect with customers. Companies that specialize in anything from auto parts to frozen custard say they're moving beyond a one-page Web site with an address and telephone number.

Still, Internet design companies said they have had trouble persuading smaller business to try more complicated, expensive Web sites.

Even small, one-page Web sites with basic details can run $1,000. Ben's Carstar Web site, for example, cost about $3,000 to build and costs $140 a month to maintain, Williams said.

"The biggest problem with smaller companies doing strictly the consumer-type stuff is that they don't understand the Web that much," said Jason Kraus, founder of MicroElements Web design, a Strongsville Internet company that has created Web sites for everyone from winery owners to Steve O, a character on the MTV reality show "Jackass."

Small-business newcomers to the Web are also challenged by the growing demands of consumers on commercial sites. Many don't follow the common practice of including an online privacy policy to explain how they use personal information.

But many Web designers have struggled to design an interactive Web site for traditional Main Street businesses. Some bricks-and-mortar facilities said maintaining a Web site was too complex and, as a result, they didn't have any use for a high-end Web site.

"Our first Web site was done on the barter system: free ice cream and a free Web site," said Dallas Johnson, vice president of operations for Strickland's Marketing Corp., which runs Strickland's Frozen Custard in Akron.

But today's www.stricklands.info is significantly more high-tech. The custard company is building up its Flavor of the Day section, which lets visitors check on any of a growing list of Strickland's franchises to see what they're serving.

Strickland's, which recently started franchising its longtime custard stores, adjusted its Web site to allow franchisees to enter the site individually and update their flavors. A software program allows workers to update the Web site without knowing any Web programming.

The company has used its Web site to gradually build a 2,500-member-strong e-mail list that will alert customers when a certain store is serving their favorite flavor. On the list, banana and black raspberry are neck-and-neck favorites.

"We do get some good marketing information from the site," Johnson said.

When Williams redesigned his body shop's Web site, he wanted to build trust, raise his company's profile and make it easier on his staff by reducing their workload.

His old Web site was so bad he didn't look at it, and customers couldn't find it on an Internet search.

So he paid a Detroit company, See Progress Inc., to help build and manage the site. An employee in Cleveland takes digital pictures of the shop but sends the images to Detroit to be placed on the Web.

Ben's Carstar employees then add a daily message telling customers when their car is being painted, in the midst of being taken apart or when an unexpected problem has arisen.

The new site, up since January, averages about 100 visits a day. Since the site has been up, there has been a decline in the number of calls from people wondering about their car repairs. And insurance companies that used to drive out to the shop will also use the service to check out a vehicle, Williams said.

Overall, Williams said, the Web site reassures people that their cars are being serviced.

"On any particular day, I knew exactly what was going on with the car," said Alfredo D. Torres, a Clevelander who took his sideswiped car to Ben's. "I didn't have to call him or take time out of my day."

The site also includes a section for submitting estimate information, taking a tour of the body shop and working with insurance companies. Customers who check on their cars are asked to fill out a survey that Williams will use to rate his shop's performance.

Williams says his employees "take a little bit more pride in what they are doing" because they know people are going to be watching.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

cseper@plaind.com, 216-999-5405


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