by: Edmund Ingham
Want to buy a hi-fi online? Simple, almost every electronics site you visit will tell you everything you need to know; pictures, a list of specifications, price, warranty; if you’re lucky, or if you’re on a comparison site, you can study the advantages and disadvantages of each product, read reviews, see the overall rating. The full store experience and more from the comfort of your armchair.
The same goes for car insurance, credit cards, savings accounts, furniture, fashion, concert tickets, televisions, microwaves, laptops, lamps, fridges, and superyachts. By the time you click the buy button, you know exactly what you are going to get, period.
So why do we enter so many business relationships almost entirely blind? You don’t take a hi-fi out to lunch and hand it a contract if it chooses the right starter. But we still believe this is the best way of establishing the value of a company’s services to our business? Of course if you like and respect the people you are dealing with, it helps, but equally, if not more important, is the question, what am I actually going to get out of this relationship in business terms?
Contract size, contract length, number of staff, specialist knowledge, client reviews, price and points of difference represent information we ought to know before we sit down at the negotiating table with somebody we are thinking of working with. And that is just for starters. Let’s say you feel your business lacks a social media presence. You allocate a budget of $10,000 dollars and set about finding the perfect firm. You have a few recommendations and referrals but you want to cast the net as wide as you can.
First of all, you can try Google, or a local services directory. This will work reasonably well, but it does have limitations; firstly the companies you will find first are most likely to be either the biggest and most well established in their field, the ones you already know about, or the ones who have spent the most on ad-words. This tells you something; that they are a solid bet or that they recognise the importance of marketing their services, but if you have a clear idea of what you are looking for then you haven’t really narrowed down your search. You still have to visit the website, study the details, send an email requesting further information, and you will be overlooking many other companies on the basis that they do not score well in search rankings, when perhaps their quality is such that they don’t need to.
So you are back where you started. Perhaps you can source a list of recommended firms or find a discussion forum to help you, but again it’s not a comprehensive but a highly selective way of searching. The logical conclusion to all this wasted effort is that what you really need is a searchable database that you can apply filters to and tailor to your needs. Like a price comparison site, but with the focus on comparing services and working methodology, rather than just price.
Knowing what you want and not being able to find it is not only frustrating for you but also for the service provider who wishes you knew about them. It’s why many businesses end up forming long term partnerships with firms they are less than 100% happy with. It’s unsatisfactory, and yet we persist with it in the absence of a satisfactory alternative.
To employ a phrase that is in severe danger of becoming over-used where new business ideas are concerned, what if there was another way? Companies who make products are desperate to get them onto price comparison websites, or on rare occasions, make a big deal out of the fact that they refuse to be listed (a strategy that works well but still requires the price comparison site to be there in the first place). So why not business services?
There is a noticeable trend towards this; industries who traditionally rely on word of mouth, or being the only outlet in town, are facing stiffer competition now that almost all kinds of service are more mobile and travel is not such an issue. Economies of scale dictate that a company such as Pimlico Plumbers can cover most of London without worrying about extra fuel costs, for example, or your local minicab rank is not such the godsend it used to be if you are armed with a smartphone and an Uber or Hailo app.
Websites are beginning to spring up where you can search for and find rated plumbers, electricians, vets, builders, and foreign language tutors. But what about more business oriented services; accounting, legal services, IT resellers, commercial property lettings. Or the more creative industries? Printing, graphic design, copywriting, branding, marketing, SEO experts, advertising agencies, events managers, and PR agencies?
We have long been living in a business world with no borders; “glocalisation” has been around since Thomas Friedman first discussed it in his book “theLexus and the Olive Tree” in the late nineties. Now we are gravitating towards decision making processes that have been equally democratised, by algorithms, big data, and optimisation, however complete automation of the process is a long way off because it is we who must enter the search criteria. Database backed platforms are decision making tools, not decision makers.
Any study of sites with a high concentrations of a certain kind of industry, tech, finance, IT systems, will tell you that they all grew up differently. Silicon Valley, for example, was heavily funded in its infancy by large government contracts for national security, the development of new kinds of weapons, and has since re-invented itself cyclically to ensure that it is always pre-eminent in its chosen field. Similarly Israel’s Tech industry, one of the fastest growing and most impressive global hubs, has been heavily funded by the military.
On the other hand Berlin’s tech hub and New York’s Silicon Alley have grown up autonomously and spontaneously, and are more unpredictable as a result, and, way before the government announced its intention back in 2010 to turn Shoreditch in London into “Tech City”, the area attracted many hundreds of creative and tech savvy companies. New York, Berlin and London are a mixed bag of disparate services that are thought of as belonging to an organic hub, but good luck to anyone trying to discover who they all actually are.
My point here is that in some areas you know exactly what kind of business you are going to get, and where to find their details; in others, you may be surprised by what is out there. Either way, as a business, you would always rather be aware than not. A searchable, up to date database of local services would be a useful addition to any area that has a high concentration of business and wishes to promote itself as a “hub”. In an area with a reputation for outstanding graphic design or financial services, for example it would represent a mightily useful platform and one hell of a marketing tool to boot. Particularly where contracct sizes are smaller, as with many of the more creative industries.
To return to my search for a good SEO provider, then, only this time my search engine returns the “London graphic design database”, for example. So I prefer a smaller company, who offer face to face meetings, have an average project size that matches my own budget size, some client testimonials which I can quickly scroll through, a list of staff and their qualifications, and a persuasive mission statement. My search returns let’s say 5 results. Perfect, I have my shortlist. Now I can start thinking about where I am going to take them for lunch.
Over the past few months I have been conducted some initial feasibility studies around the idea of a companies database which is helpful to those looking for services but can also be used as a marketing platform by its members. I would welcome people’s comments below and happy to hear from anybody who has been thinking along the same lines.
About the Author
I cover entrepreneurship and focus on London’s Silicon Roundabout
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