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SMART ANSWERS
By Karen E. Klein

7.29.99  
Getting a Collections Firm Star Billing on the Web
The challenge for this Net latecomer is to create a site that reflects its reputation

Q: My partner and I own a very reputable collection agency. We are new to the Internet and interested in getting our name circulating in a professional manner. Do you have any tips on how to do this? --C.A.E., Bristol, Conn.

A: Most business owners will probably, at some point, find themselves having to hire an agency like yours to collect past-due accounts, so your services are going to be useful to many entrepreneurs across many industries. Therein lies your challenge -- your target market is quite broad, and you'll need a good marketing strategy if you really want to take advantage of the Internet to get your name out there. Be aware, however, that state laws that govern collections activities differ, and you may not be able to take on new clients outside your geographical area.

To develop a Web presence, you'll need to spend serious time Web surfing to determine what other collections agencies have done and what types of businesses and agencies would be appropriate sources of referrals for you. But you can do this kind of research over several weeks in the evenings or on weekends from your home PC. You could also have a staff member devote a few hours a week to Web surfing or hire a student to gather some research for you, but it's probably best for you to stay pretty involved in the process. If you aren't familiar with the Net by now, you've fallen behind the times.

Of course, you'll need a Web page that will have reciprocal links with other complementary businesses. To get those links, make your Web page professional and useful, and keep it properly updated. If you get queries through your site, respond to them quickly. Is there a place for visitors to fill out an application for your services? Consider writing or gathering some useful articles on collections and how to handle overdue accounts that would make your site a resource for entrepreneurs. You may want to post some links to industry associations that relate to your services. Like any marketing tool, your Web site is a way to get your name and contact information in front of your target audience, along with your professional certification and testimonials that prove your firm is indeed reputable.

Think of ways you can get Internet exposure for free or at low cost. Perhaps a Web directory for a particular industry would give your company a link on its page as a way to point its viewers to a valuable service, suggests Stephen Dem, an Encino (Calif.) attorney specializing in commercial collections. Or you could work out a fee, or do collections for the Web site's business or its members for a small discount in return for the link. Monitor how much business these reciprocal links actually generate with a few trial sites before you promise big discounts. Since your service is applicable to so many industries, you might wind up with hundreds of links, and you don't want too much work at reduced rates.

Standard Internet marketing tools, such as banner ads on search-engine sites, are also possibilities you need to explore and for which you should set a budget. For real-life examples of practical successes -- and failures -- from companies who've experimented with all types of Web advertising, check out StrikingItRich.com, by Jaclyn Easton, a book that profiles 23 Web companies and their strategies for success.

For more help in your own industry, go to the Web page of the American Collectors Assn., www.collector.com. You can get your first link right there, by filling out an online application. Join their ACA Online group, which offers news, newsgroups, chats, legislative information, and other useful information.

Have a question about running your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an E-mail at editors@businessweekmail.com, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 46th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.

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