Web-based company harbors lofty ambitions

Whatcom E-View owners hope to link businesses with customers, and use client feedback to improve these businesses’ customer service

Pete Nelson and Blaine Fritts’ new business, Whatcom EView, allows customers to rate and post comments on local businesses, helping those companies to improve their customer service.

Dan Hiestand
   Advertising executive Leo Burnett — the man famous for creating such icons as the Jolly Green Giant, the Marlboro Man, the Pillsbury Doughboy and Tony the Tiger — once said, “What helps people, helps business.”
   This quote seems to encompass much of what Pete Nelson and Blaine Fritts say they are trying to accomplish with the Fairhaven-based Web site they co-founded earlier this year.
   “I think that our overall mission is to improve the local service standard and connect businesses with consumers,” said Fritts of his site, Whatcom Eview.com (whatcomeview.com).
   The site — which focuses on locally based businesses in the Whatcom County market — embodies a variety of components, including consumer ratings of local businesses, business credentials and Web sites, and most importantly — in the eyes of its founders — a search engine that allows consumers to search for local businesses by name, category or location.
   “There are a lot of sites that are coming up,” said Nelson, who also teaches part time at Western Washington University in the department of finance and marketing. “We believed that it was important for this content to be created within the local community by local people.”
   With the rise of the Internet has also come the proliferation of Web sites that claim to keep businesses accountable and consumers informed, such as Angie’s List (www.angieslist.com), Seattle-based Judy’s Book (www.judysbook.com) or localized sites available through Yahoo and Google, where people discuss everything from restaurants to travel.
   Nelson and Fritts said the potential for this kind of service — particular to Whatcom County — is promising, especially in an area that has experienced a healthy level of economic growth and development.
   The company, which is funded by a private financier who chooses to remain unnamed, is planning on investing $100,000 into additional Web site improvements, Nelson said.
   “We are a consumer site that essentially wants to offer service for both consumers and for businesses to help connect with each other,” Nelson said. “It’s a huge campaign for us.”
   In theory, Internet technology affords myriad opportunities for local business and consumers to augment the partnership between the two sides. Putting that theory into practice in a responsible, constructive way, however, may be a different matter if the will to improve doesn’t translate from the keyboard to the shop counter.

How it works
   Nelson said a major difference between Whatcom Eview and its regional competitor sites is that Eview promotes and encourages businesses to respond to consumer ratings, whereas the other sites don’t have the same community-style communication.
   “We want consumers to be accountable,” he said. “We want businesses to go online and check their ratings. And when a consumer complains about a business, a business has the ability to say, ‘I don’t think this is valid.’”
   Nelson and Fritts, who met at Western Washington University when Fritts was earning his master’s degree in business administration in 2004, hope to list every business in Whatcom County on the site eventually. Once listed, businesses would be open to consumer ratings and comments, whether they are Whatcom Eview members or not. The listings can include links to their company Web site for no charge; however, only member businesses would be able to respond directly to consumer ratings via the Eview Web site.
   To rate a business, consumers must create a user name and provide a valid e-mail, which helps to ensure the integrity of the rating system, Fritts said. Customers can also mark a box that requests that the business contact them.
   After filing a rating, they become known as ‘Eviewers.’ All e-mails, user names, and passwords of Eviewers are strictly confidential, unless customers divulge contact information to businesses.
   Eviewers can appraise the business in six categories — professionalism, quality, value, timeliness, responsiveness and overall rating — on a scale of one to five. Excluding the “overall rating” category, the categories are weighted according to the question, “How important is this issue?” Consumers can mark “low”, “medium” or “high.”
   Member businesses can also add additional survey questions. Comments and ratings are listed with user names as to identify the source, and business responses appear on the same page as customer remarks.
   It’s this community feel that Whatcom Eview is striving for, Nelson said.
   “What we are trying to do is actually create a local search engine,” he said. “Our reason for creating a local search engine is because we’ve seen that Google and other search engines are not an effective resource for both local consumers and businesses.”
   While the site is free to consumers, businesses that want to become members — which costs about $5 per month (or $6 with an Eview-hosted Web site) — instantly become a part of a local, Web-based community, Fritts said. However, membership prices will increase sharply after charter membership period closes in January of next year.
   Users with Angie’s List, a consumer-driven Web site that rates home improvement contractors and includes more than 500,000 reviewers in 83 cities across the U.S., pay $6 a month. The fee includes Web site access and a local monthly magazine filled with ads for some of the companies listed on the Web site. However, unlike Whatcom Eview, the Web site does not have business members, which means no Web presence for companies — aside from consumer reviews.
   An online listing and Web site with the Yellow Pages runs between $15 and $36 per month, while a listing and Web site with Yahoo! Local Listing is about $10 per month.
   All Whatcom Eview business members must be locally based, willing to let consumers rate their services, have their credentials verified by Whatcom Eview, and have a local Web site (independently or through the Eview Web site) for consumers to browse.
   Additional services, such as coupons, online registrations and anonymous suggestion boxes, are also available. Whatcom Eview also offers dispute resolution services for some problems that may arise between Eviewers and business members. Currently, Nelson said, the business has about 3,000 companies listed and more than 150 business members.

Forming a community?
   Nelson said statistics show Bellingham to be Internet savvy, which means the community is ready and open to Web-based options like Whatcom Eview. He also realizes his business will realize success only if consumers and businesses utilize the service.
   Feedback legitimacy is an issue, Nelson said.
   “You get the person that is really happy that goes in and rates, and really mad that goes in and rates,” Nelson said. “That’s why we say to businesses to get your customers to rate you, because what happens is you start getting it more in the middle.”
   To more effectively harness customer feedback and business responsiveness, Nelson said, he hopes to introduce Eview computer “kiosks” around town in the future.
   “Businesses should be offering major incentives to get customers to do this,” Nelson said, citing discount coupons as an example. “Our goal is to have it where people have the ability to go in and rate all over town in a variety of locations.”
   There could also be impetus for businesses to garner consumer response: Businesses with the highest ratings rise to the top of the listings, Nelson said. Steve Roguski, owner of Fairhaven Runners and Walkers, said the Web site sounds promising — especially the ability to garner customer feedback and promote local business.
   “Anything fairly new like this — you’ve got to get the ball rolling and it just takes a while,” said Roguski, whose business is a member company of Whatcom Eview. “It needs to be part of the framework of how things work: You shop and you rate.”
   To help deflect customers to the Eview Web site, Roguski said he has a link to the site on his company’s own Web site.
   “It is the responsibility of the businesses involved, in large part, to keep reminding people about (Whatcom Eview),” said Roguski, who would support the concept of an Eview kiosk in his shop. Admittedly, he said, he was unsure if the Eview concept would take off.
   “That’s a tough one,” he said. “Things like this just need to be able to hang on long enough. I think it is just exposure.”
   John Blethen, owner of New Whatcom Interiors in Bellingham, said he was not familiar with Whatcom Eview, but said the concept could be successful.
   “Especially as the population becomes more computer literate,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t be concerned about (gathering ratings) one way or the other, but that is probably because I’m old. If I were in my 20s, then I would probably be very interested in that, or if I was building a business — which I’m not. I have a mature business.”
   For John Merrill, president at Gateway Controls, Inc., in Bellingham, the ability of a business to respond to Eviewer comments is important.
   “I think if somebody is able to make a comment on a company, then the company should have an opportunity to respond without necessarily paying a fee or joining Whatcom Eview,” said Merrill. “(But) I think it’s a great concept. The more information the consumer has, the better their choice is going to be.”
   Fritts said the cost of joining the site compared to one-way consumer ratings sites is inexpensive — especially considering that member businesses have the ability to respond to comments.
   “That benefit comes with a price,” Fritts said.
   “And we have to make our money somehow,” Nelson added.

A long-term goal
   Both Nelson and Fritts said they started the Web-based business because they wanted to prevent what happened to their grandmothers, who were involved in bad business dealings.
   Nelson said an aim of the company is to be proactive, not reactive, when it comes to consumer-business relations.
   “Why does it have to be a reaction to something that happens? The Better Business Bureau is a reaction to afterwards,” he said. “In a local community, the consumers and the businesses have to work together. It’s a partnership.”
   After starting in April as the Bellingham Business Eview, the organization, which has five employees, recently decided to change its name — and its goals, Nelson said.
   He said he considers Whatcom Eview to currently be in “beta mode,” essentially flying under the radar until the kinks are worked out of its business model.
   “We realize people don’t trust us yet,” Nelson said. “We haven’t been around very long, and people don’t understand it.”
   So far, the company has a few hundred registered Eviewers, and Nelson said he hopes to have 5,000 registered within the next year. He also said the Web site is aiming to draw 100,000 to 250,000 hits per month in the future — although that number could be as much as four times as high as that, he said.
   However, at this point in time, “it’s not as many as we want,” he said.
   To market the Web site, the company has engaged in print advertising, distribution of promotional materials to area businesses and an Eview sticker marketing campaign.
   “It’s a slow process. Integrated marketing is something that takes time,” he said. “What we are trying to do is, No. 1, show people that we are not going away.”
   He said the business is involved with the Chamber of Commerce, and is a campaign supporting sponsor of Sustainable Connections.
   Fritts agreed: It does take time.
   “Because (improving the level of service in the community) is our overall mission, it, by its very nature, is a long-term goal,” Fritts said. “And trying to measure it now after being in business for only a few months, would be pointless.



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