Beyond marketing: when the site is the service.
The Firm as Host
|By RICHARD J. KORETO|
Most online firms make do with one Web site, but Hungerford, Aldrin, Nichols & Carter (HANC) has over two dozen and counting. One site is HANCs own, but its servers store (or, as is more commonly known, "host") the Web sites of about 28 clientssites that HANC set up and designed. HANC has expanded its venerable information technology consulting practice into a new niche creating and storing Web sites. Said Richard A. Hungerford, HANC shareholder in charge of computer consulting services, "IT has long been a venue for value-added consulting. Our concept is that the Internet is the way business will be transacted in the 21st century. Were looking to make Web site creation and storing a profit center."
SETTING UP ITS OWN SITE. . .
After months of planning, Hungerford, Aldrin, Nichols & Carter went live with its own site in April 1996. The firm has a technology committee responsible for the content and design of the site, but almost everyone at the firm is involved in some way. The layout and design are handsome and easy to use: The home page links to descriptions of the firms services, shareholders and managers; accounting and finance resources; a guest book; and a Tip of the Week, which staff members take turns writing. (A recent subject was "Lower Capital Gains Rates Under the New Tax Law.") HANC is almost completely self-contained, with its own servers. That is, the firm itself has computers that store its own Web site and those of its clients; it does not have to contract with an outside service to do this. Senior Network Analyst Sean Motherway, who acts as Webmaster for HANC, spends several hours a week on general site maintenance for HANCs site. He also helps HANC clients set up their sites.
In addition to promoting the firm, the site helps in delivery of services. Tax shareholder John Clark uses the site to send and receive client tax documents. Hes found the site is becoming a popular place for people to post tax questions: "Id like to set up a billable serviceanswering tax questions over the Internet. And there are other possibilities under discussion."
Name: Hungerford, Aldrin, Nichols & Carter, P.C.
Personnel: Total of 35 (approximately 20 in accounting, 10 in computer services; 5 in support).
Location: Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Types of clients: Small and midsize businesses, individuals.
Client services: Tax, audits, wide range of consulting services.
Web site: http://www.hanc.com .
. . .LEADS TO SETTING UP OTHERS
The firm started its Web storing and design service to provide additional services to current clients; however, about half its Web site clients are new to the firm. "Because of the expertise weve developed in IT consulting, were able to market our Web services by themselves," said Hungerford. Most of its Web site clients have signed with the firm since January 1997.
Hungerford, Aldrin, Nichols & Carter offers a wide array of services divided into two plans:
- The basic plan: 500 kilobytes of server space (enough for a
modest-size Web site), an e-mail address, registration in over 400
search engines, a monthly report of access hits, a daily backup of
the clients data and an address thats part of the firms (http://
- The premium plan: The same as above, but with 10 megabytes of server space (for a very large site), 10 e-mail addresses (so 10 employees, or departments, can each have a unique e-mail address) and a unique address (http://www.yourcompany.com).
However, Hungerford stressed that each client gets a tailor-made site suitable for its needs and its market. "For each prospective Web site client, we perform a feasibility study. We research the sites of local and national competitors. We can work with a clients staff or its outside marketing consultant and advertising agency." HANCs computer staff of 10 can handle sophisticated programming: Java, used for high-level enhancements not readily done with HTML; file transfer protocol, to help clients add files that their own customers can download; and guest books, so potential customers can leave information about themselves. HANC can register its clients pages not only with big search engines such as Yahoo and AltaVista but also with lesser-known industry-specific search engines. If a client wants a design beyond the skills of HANCs staff, the firm has a list of subcontracted designers it can bring in.
Installing a counter on a Web site is a quick and simple procedure, but in addition HANC can provide pages of exclusive data for each client, such as where hits are coming from and the days and the times when the site is most and least active. HANC posts this information on its own site; each client has a password to view its own data.
"Our Web service has led us into another billable niche: training," said Sandra Walraven, manager of information systems. Hungerford, Aldrin, Nichols & Carter can train key people at a clients office to perform simple uploads, so they can modify their site from their desks without involving the firm.
HANCs site provides links to its clients pages, which include a furniture manufacturer, auto dealerships, some nonprofits and a golf equipment distributor. This not only promotes HANCs services but also encourages more hits to its clients. HANCs own site is getting 900 to 1,000 hits a month. All its stored sites, together, average about 1,500 hits a day.
PULLING IT TOGETHER
Despite the firms technological sophistication, Motherway uses some of the same programs even novice Web designers use: Homesite (shareware), Hotdog Pro and Adobe Photoshop (for illustrations). The first two cost about $100 each; Photoshop is about $450. He also still uses Windows Notepad, a simple text editor that comes free with Windows. The firm spent about $20,000 on its server hardware.
HANCs IT staff trains others in the firm so they understand the firms Web practice and can discuss it with current and potential clients in relation to other firm services. "As in many firms and companies, our technological skills are homegrown," said Hungerford. "The IT staff keeps up with the literature and were looking into certification on some Microsoft products. But most of our Internet knowledge is self-taught." Hungerford, Walraven and Motherway have continued their technological education after college.
In the future, Hungerford, Aldrin, Nichols & Carter plans to help its clients become more sophisticated on the Web. Hungerford said that even though the firms clients were happy with the marketing abilities of the Web, they would be looking beyond to using the Web to actually provide services. HANC is working on solving security issues to make online stores and e-mail transactions workable. Eventually, the firm plans to help clients set up their own servers. "We see the Internet as a huge consulting area," said Hungerford.
Meanwhile the firm is expanding into other areas as well, including litigation services and fraud investigations. Many traditional firmsHANC was founded in 1941got into IT consulting as a sideline to traditional services. But as traditional and new services meet at HANC, the firm finds itself doing a 180 turn. Said Walraven, "We now hope to sell more traditional accounting services to our new Web site clients."