A web of Web options

Monday, September 30, 2002

It has been eight years since the dawn of the Internet age and HME providers have largely avoided using cyberspace as a commercial vehicle during that time. Now that the medium has matured and providers have grown more comfortable with the concept, more companies than ever have decided to leave the sidelines.

Trouble is, even though many have made the decision to build Web sites, too often they don't know how to proceed. And it can be a daunting task when one considers all the Web site service companies, cost structures and content choices available. So, HME managers are usually clueless at the beginning.

"When we ask them at the outset what they want to do, they usually don't know," said Dan Anderson, owner of NetProfits Internet Consulting, North Brunswick, New Jersey. "So we ask them about what they want to accomplish and talk them through it from there."

Bewilderment about how to make the best use of the Web is understandable. During the Internet's short life, an entire dot-com industry has come and gone, electronic commerce sizzled-then-fizzled, and cyber-savvy businesses are still searching for ways to make money on the Web. It stands to reason that Internet neophytes like HME providers would be confused about how to build a commercially viable Web site. Besides finding a starting place, providers must consider what they want their sites to do, how much they can spend and which demographics they want to attract.

Jack Evans, president of Malibu, Calif.-based Global Media Marketing, says too many providers are myopic in their vision of what the Web should do and emphasize on generating adjunct sales at the expense of existing clients.

"Those who treat their Web site like a catalog may get orders, but it won't be from the people they currently serve," he said. "Those who buy products online will be from outside the sales territory in rural areas and undeveloped countries. And although it's business from people you wouldn't ordinarily get, the average HME consumer won't go online to order products."

For the most part, providers are being advised to take baby steps when developing their Web sites - start simple before eventually adding more complex functions like e-commerce. Some even argue that HME doesn't lend itself to Internet-based sales.

"It isn't like selling CDs or books," said John Friel, president of VGM Internet Services, Waterloo, Iowa. "What we recommend is an electronic version of the Yellow Pages. And the cost is actually lower than a Yellow Pages ad."

"I wouldn't do e-commerce at all," said Walter Hayes, president of Houston-based Steadfast Marketing. "The point is that there are a lot of people using the Internet for health information. The provider should focus on information about the company and bringing customers into the store."

One way to attract customers, Evans said, is to position the company as a resource for disease information based on product mix. So a respiratory provider could have sections on COPD, asthma and emphysema, while a rehab supplier could post information about MS, ALS and arthritis. Electronic links with non-profit organizations are also beneficial, he said.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) segments are popular with Web surfers, Anderson said, adding that an FAQ about Medicare billing would probably generate a lot of interest among patients.

Using e-mail for store promotions is also an effective tool, Hayes said, but he cautioned that providers should be judicious in its use.

"For one thing, don't buy e-mail lists and do blanket mailings," he said. "Ask each patient if they would like to receive the e-mails. And then only use them sporadically to inform customers about special promotions."

Website attractiveness is another key point to consider, said Friel, whose VGM division charges members $995 for Web site development.

"You have one chance to make a good impression, so it must be professional looking," he said. "A cluttered, billboard-type advertising page is the last thing people want to see."

Vendors for hire

Determining Web site purpose and functionality brings out scores of opinions, but ultimately it is up to the provider to control the company's Internet destiny.

When deciding who to use for Web site development, providers are faced with a choice: using a major manufacturer to build a custom Web site or hiring a third party that specializes in Web site construction. Manufacturing stalwarts like Invacare and Pride tout the ease and accessibility of their sites, while Internet companies emphasize the autonomy that their sites provide.

Using the manufacturer's resources is effortless, often inexpensive (even free) and the templates are generally attractive and functional. What's more, consumer inquiries to the manufacturer's home page can be channeled to the provider's own site, resulting in new business potential. Steve Neese, vice president of e-commerce for Elyria, Ohio-based Invacare, calls it the "soft landing pad" concept. Indeed, steering inquiring consumers to authorized dealers is a key feature of Invacare's service.

"It gives providers exposure to the universe of 50 million people using the Internet," Neese said. "Large numbers of disabled use the Internet. For many, it's their only window to the outside world."

Since Invacare's Web site-building program began May 1, Neese contends it has been "a roaring success," with about 150 providers on-board by mid-July and 10 to 15 signing up per week. The start-up fee is $1,800.

"We do all the heavy lifting," Neese said. "It's expensive and complicated for a provider to set up a transactional site alone. We give them the database, order-taking function, credit card processing capability and security measures."

For Scott Guimond, senior vice president of TLC Medical in Celebration, Fla., having a manufacturer-sponsored Web site means getting exposure to a previously untapped client base.

"I was hoping that the Internet would drive business, and while it may still be premature to make that judgment, so far it's doing exactly what it's supposed to do," Guimond said. "It gives customers the ability to look at the products they're interested in and if they have technical questions, they can call me about it. For existing customers, it shows them some of the other things we do."

Exeter, Pa.-based Pride Mobility lists more than 1,000 provider users of its Web site construction service, which it has been offering at no charge for about two years. Marketing Director Mark Miller says Pride takes care of everything for the provider in order to entice participation. In as little as three to five days, the provider's Website can be up and running, he said.

"By partnering with providers, we are stressing the importance of education," Miller said. "An educated customer is the best customer we have."

Multiple Web sites needed?

For all the advantages manufacturer-built Web sites offer, there is one significant drawback: Showing competing products is usually forbidden.

For its part, Longmont, Colo.-based Sunrise Medical has refrained from building provider Web sites. Mark Ludwig, senior vice president of product management for standard home care products, calls it a "business philosophy" issue.

"There is a clear separation in what we do as a manufacturer and what dealers do to serve the marketplace," Ludwig said. "We want to be very careful about not crossing the line that separates us and the dealer. The dealer is responsible for their relationships with consumers and we provide direct support of that relationship with our Web site."

Because competing products cannot go on the Invacare page, Guimond built a second site by himself. Posted on the Yahoo Shopping domain, it features over 200 products, including Invacare's. It costs him $50 a month to maintain the site. Guimond says that any provider with patience can do the same thing.

"I can live with [the product restriction] because Invacare is a primary vendor of mine," he said. "I can understand their thinking."

Still, it would be difficult for those providers who want a single Web site presence to use a service that limits the brands they can present.

"It would be tough to showcase only one manufacturer," said Jason Seeley, vice president of Dasco Home Medical Equipment in Lewis Center, Ohio. "We have relationships with many vendors and want to display as many as possible."

By using a third-party firm like Anderson's NetProfits Internet Consulting, the provider calls the shots on design, content and purpose.

"[Our Web site] is basically a commercial for our company, explaining our history, services and providing directions to our store," Seeley said.

Anderson, who charges between $2,000 and $3,000 for Web site development, says it is imperative that providers have their own Internet identity.

"It should be about your company specifically and it should reflect your personality," he said.

Stipulation-free sites

Not all vendor-made Web sites restrict product content, however. Teaneck, N.J.-based Apex Foot Health is promoting a Web site-building service that gives providers independence.

"Although we make it ... it's not an Apex site," said Marketing Manager Donille Perrone. "They own it. They can put whatever products they want on it."

Apex starting packaging Web site services as a sales incentive to providers about two years ago. Providers who committed to buying a certain volume of Apex products could get their own free Web sites. It took time, but Apex has now furnished more than 600 sites, Perrone said. HME