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July 18, 2007

Trustworthy – Presenting Your Small Business Online

Would you feel confident buying a high-performance car from a street-corner vendor?

If you are like most people, you would much rather buy the car from a dealership that sells other cars, has a good reputation and employs many people. This is the same logic your online customers follow.

The web has empowered individual entrepreneurs to provide professional services and products that match those of large corporations – but most potential clients would still rather do business with a large company than a sole-proprietorship. People who are searching for products and services online constantly look for indicators of reliability, quality and trust in vendors’ websites. Visitors will examine your website for these indicators beause it is a substitute for examining your wares and visiting your offices. You can dramatically increase the number of casual browsers that you turn into clients by incorporating those indicators into your site. This article will show you how to achieve this.

You can convey reliability through your site by giving the impression that your company has good customer service, a bureaucratic hierarchy and that it’s large in size. Showing these qualities can be done by doing the following:
For one-person companies, classify the owner as a “General Manager” or a “Chief Technician”. This will explain to clients why their inquiries are handled by a single contact, and will imply that there is another person in the company who is the “Owner”. This already increases the perceived number of people involved in the company twofold.
All companies should have their telephone, email and mailing address proudly displayed. Lacking a mailing address or a phone shows visitors that you are not a legitimate company, nor reachable when needed. Many contractors and owner-operators who work from home are reluctant to post their address online, but the chances of being visited in person (without prior contact) are slim compared to the benefit your address gives to the “tangibility” of the company. One approach to decreasing the chance of someone actually visiting is to classify the address as a “mailing address only”.
Providing a guarantee gives another boost to your company’s perceived reliability. This guarantee does not have to be substantial, though, and may be as vague as “we guarantee the most professional customer service treatment”.
Finally, a mistake that many small business owners make is using a free email (Yahoo! or Hotmail) as the company email. This sets the alarm bells ringing in visitors’ minds – real companies have email addresses at their domain. There is no reason why your company should not have its own email addresses, as even $7/month hosting plans provide this capability.

Encouraging visitors’ trust mainly involves showing to them that your company is “real” and “tangible”, not a fly-by-night operation.

Regardless of whether this is exactly what your company is, there are several ways to make it seem otherwise:
Do not use generic stock images. Customers are constantly bombarded with generic pictures of smiling people, computer racks and skyscrapers – why should they trust someone who’s pictures they’ve seen on another site?

Create your own pictures, or take the time to choose unique and appropriate stock images.
Give visitors a glimpse into the “guts” of your company: post short employee or manager profiles, with their pictures. Show pictures of your offices or worksites – and ensure that they look authentic. When they see these two things, visitors know that a) your employees are real b) you have an actual location. If you have neither employees nor an office, post a good picture of yourself working at a computer or answering a phone (but make sure that your workplace is tidy and does not look like a home office).
A great way to make visitors feel secure about giving you their contact information is to have seals of approval posted next to your contact form. This has been researched and proven to decrease “abandonment” of your online forms. The best way to acquire seals of approval is to get them from organizations such as the Better Business Bureau, TRUSTe, and other approval organizations. A less expensive substitute is to be certified by a smaller niche-agency or post a membership seal from a professional association.
The final element of building trust is to have a privacy policy, and to address visitors’ concerns openly. In the text of your site, openly state that you value clients’ confidentiality, understand their needs and hold each employee accountable for their ethical conduct.

Showing the quality of your products and services is related to showing that you are serious about your business. Because your site visitors cannot touch your product or experience your service, they have to resort to evaluating your website itself as an indication of the care you take in your craft. This makes it very important that you take care in the way your site is built.
First of all, the look of your site matters greatly when it comes to showing quality. If your website looks like it was made in 1997 (big and blocky, misaligned, flashing animated GIFs) then you will not impress any web surfers – regardless of whether you are the best company in the offline world. Invest in bringing your site design up to date visually.

This does not mean being on the cutting edge, just having tasteful design.
Also, you should ask a third party to review your website for spelling mistakes. As we do more business online without seeing our counterparty, we rely more on things such as spelling and grammar to assess intelligence, intentions and background. For a client, shoddy copywriting means shoddy workmanship on your end.
The final indicator of quality – testimonials – comes from the realm of Sales. Having testimonials indicates to potential clients that others have successfully used your services, and were satisfied. Place testimonials in areas of your website where visitors will start doubting your product or service’s quality – such as in “product showcase” pages or on sign-up forms. The more authentic your testimonials feel, the better. It is always better to place a scanned image of a written testimonial than to retype it into a webpage.

Something that you should remember as you integrate these indicators of reliability, trust and quality into your site is to never lie. You should never place pictures of nonexistent employees, locations or testimonials. You should never misrepresent the quality of your wares, exaggerate your achievements or provide a fake address instead of your home office address.
Your ultimate goal is to turn visitors into inquiries, and inquiries into customers. If you initially misrepresent your company, the truth will always come to light once you begin a business relationship with the customer. There is nothing more embarrassing than having your clients find out that you lied about yourself mid-project, withdraw the project and complain about you to the local business chamber.
Most of the approaches outlined here put your existing business in a better light. Once website visitors begin inquiring through email or phone, you should frankly and openly discuss your company with them. You should explain that “your location” is your home office, your “team” is actually made up of subcontractors and professionals to whom you outsource on occasion and that you are the Owner as well as the “Manager”. Honesty is very attractive. And once a potential client hears that you are honest and knowledgeable, they will feel that there is a real person interacting with them. There will no longer exist a cyber-chasm that you need to bridge with your website, and you can begin selling your product or service on its own merits.

Potential clients who visit your company’s website feel that your site reflects on your company. Because visitors cannot touch your products, hear your voice or visit your office online, they have to rely on certain factors in your website to decide whether to do business with you. Through better design, better communication and genuine imagery, your website can show that your company is reliable, trustworthy and provides a quality product. If your website can convey those qualities, then it’s clear that your company is worth doing business with.

Author:  Jacob Filipp is the owner of the Toronto-based Powerspirit SEO company. Jacob draws on 7 years of experience as a programmer and web developer.