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Inc. Magazine - February 2000

COMMUNITY, COMMUNITY, COMMUNITY
Not every business begets a cult

BY EMILY BARKER, ANNE MARIE BORREGO AND MIKE HOFMAN

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When it comes to business on the Web, even the straight reporting sounds like hype.  In three years E-commerce is forecasted to pass the $2.3-trillion mark.  And that’s not just according to some digerati guru—it was reported by the New York Times Magazine, which went on to comfortably compare the Internet with the telephone, the railroad, and the automobile.  Amid all the hoopla, it’s no wonder that the rest of us feel bombarded with information about the Web—when to get on (yesterday), how to play it (big), and what will happen if we don’t (fuggedaboudit).  Well, the real world is a little more complicated than the hypemeisters would have you believe.

DANIEL HARRISON is an early adopter if there ever was one.  Paramount Services Corp.—his Long Island pool and hot-tub supply company—was on the Web even before Amazon.com was.

Back in 1996, chat rooms and message boards were becoming centers of passionate customer interaction, focusing on products as diverse as electric trains and knitting yarn.  “We thought such a community would work for us,” Harrison says.

Harrison’s ISP agreed to install chat technology on his site in April 1996.  Paramount would pay a $2,500.00 outlay for the software, and the ISP promised to provide free service after it was up and running.  “we were really excited,” Harrison recalls.  “We put notices on our main pages that next Wednesday we were going to have a live on-line chat with our customers at 10 p.m.  We offered 10% off products that were bought during the chat.  We tried to make it as appealing as we could.”

Come Wednesday, Harrison and five of his servicemen stayed after hours to run the chat.  They were so sure they were going to be swamped with customer inquiries that they didn’t order dinner, although  they did have a few beers.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t much of a party on-line.  “We had maybe 10 people come,” says Harrison.

The crew was happy anyway.  The technology worked.  Paramount was again on the cutting edge.  Harrison figured that the weekly audience would grow to 30 pretty quickly, then shoot upward.  But only 6 showed up for the second go-around.  And week three was quieter still.

Harrison realized his mistake.  “If the hot-tub water is turning your kid’s hair green, you don’t want to wait for the answer until Wednesday night at 10, and you don’t want to know that some nice lady had to say on the message board,” he says.   “My customers don’t want to talk to each other.  If they have a question, they want to talk to an expert.”

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When you live and breathe your product, it’s hard to realize that customers aren’t as passionate about it as you are.  “I’m sure if I had Michael Jackson talking about his hot tub, I’d get 10 million people in a chat room,” Harrison says.  “Without him I only got 4.  In 20 years of retail, I’ve had bigger busts.  But that was a pretty big one.”