Working from home, you don't have to worry about commuting, you can spend more time with your family and—bonus—this often means no more boss. But sometimes it can feel like the world is on your shoulders when you don't set yourself up with the right technology. You need a computer that's affordable, but won't break down all the time. If a web site is going to be a component of your business, as it should, you should have the products needed to make it look professional. Many companies can streamline your technology needs through their own packages, as well. Home-Based Travel Agent looks at technology that will make your business work for you, instead of causing you more work.
To begin, there's not a more important piece of technology than the computer you use. Reliable companies like Dell offer laptops in notebook form from $500 to $700 (www.dell.com) plus the cost of virus and spyware protection, but you also want to look into warranties and turnaround times for repair. It's great to be able to get your computer fixed by the store you bought it at for free, but not if it takes two weeks to get it back, while your customers wait and you lose money. Another strong investment is in IT people who you know will be available when you need them. But it's not necessary to spend hundreds of dollars an hour when many college students are actually as knowledgeable as full-time professionals. Fees for them are usually as low as $30-$50 an hour, and since many are accustomed to pulling all-nighters, they may not mind doing the same with your computer issue, having it back to you intact the next day.
Web sites draw a lot of customers to many home agencies. How easy is it to set one up? It can be accomplished almost immediately for as little as $30 a year for domain name registration and $200-$300 a year for hosting. Still, if you really want your site to stand out, nothing will do that better than photos of destinations, maybe even some from your own camera. The Canon Powershot A610 digital camera, which retails at around $250, holds numerous pictures. But no matter what camera you get, make sure it has at least five megapixels, ensuring that you'll create large enough shots for cropping pictures and blowing them up. You will also need a USB 2.0 capability so that you can upload quickly, because the last thing you need is to be waiting all day to improve your web site when you have calls to make. If you want video capabilities, cameras like the Canon Powershot S2 IS can take continuous movie recordings, with two-gigabyte memory cards boosting filming length to an hour, at a cost of around $400. If you want to go with more high-end video cameras so you can create a video blog, make sure the sound quality is good. If it isn't, get a camera with a microphone extension capability; it won't impress customers if they're hearing your air conditioner blowing instead of your voice.
Support From Host Agencies
Armed with the technology to allow basic functionality for your customers, you can align yourself with companies to further improve how you interact with them. For example, many host agencies provide web sites for their agents.
David Anderson, CIO of America's Vacation Center, says his company developed the software Agent Power in part to allow home-based agents to keep up with larger chains.
"Agent Power was originally an invoicing system to type in vendors and keep track of commissions," he says, "but now it's an agency operating system where if you're a home-based agent, it allows you to keep up with customer relationship management (CRM)." What most other CRM systems fail to do, says Anderson, is track exactly how marketing performs. "Every call that comes into our call center or to an agent can be tracked to specific numbers—the same applies for direct mail by e-mail or a web banner ad." In addition, a customer can see if an agent is online, so they can instant message them if they have a question. "You want to constantly be available to your customer in the way that appeals to them," says Anderson. "If they aren't phone people, this is a great way to communicate." But let's say they want to call for advice, but it's not during your office hours because you're in a different time zone. "We have an integrated support community through our technology so another agent can pull up a record and access the customer's data to help with a sale," he says. "This 'buddy system' allows everyone to have the feel of a 24-7 business."
Carlson SeaMaster Cruises is another example of a company that, Tim Walsh, a Hempstead, NC, franchisee says enables him to keep better track of his e-mail marketing. "They help us to do fully loaded templates," he says. "It allows you to put in your picture, contact info and anything else you need for e-mail marketing. We have our own web site through the system and every month they change the wording and the specials to make it what we want it to be."
Old Can Be Gold
While investing in technology, remember that old ways are still some of the best ways to do business. Says Walsh: "Don't be so quick to use your cell phone for all your deals because you can lose those calls or sound like you're in the middle of a tunnel. By having that land line, you're assured of giving your customer the best service."
Also, recognize when your customer needs to hear your voice. After all, an exclamation point on an instant message can never replace live enthusiasm for a destination. —Eric Butterman
- 1. You can set up a domain name at www.register.com|~www.register.com/ for $35 a year
- 2. The cost of web hosting at www.rackspace.com|~www.rackspace.com/ varies according to the size of the site
- 3. Notebooks: www.dell.com|~www.dell.com/ , www.apple.com/macbook|~www.apple.com/macbook/
- 4. Dreamweaver web design software ($399): www.adobe.com/products/dreamweaver|~www.adobe.com/products/dreamweaver/
- 5. Digital cameras: www.canon.com|~www.canon.com/