Matchmakers turn to service businesses

Internet sites which offer services instead of goods are beginning to emerge. These sites give people a way to find several businesses more easily and faster than other means.
Written by Mike Cleary, Contributor

The World Wide Web is at your service. A little-noticed field of companies has started crawling the Web, offering to help consumers line up services - everything from plumbing help and vets to limousine drivers - instead of products.

It's only natural the Internet would pick up part of the service business, which accounts for one-third of the gross domestic product. But the virtual connections of the Web have so far proven more adept at trading physical goods than intangible ones. So while consumers can look forward to shopping for services over the Web, it may take a while before the Internet becomes truly proficient at this new job, industry officials and analysts say.

There are at least 25 to 30 sites offering services over the Web, says Charles McLaughlin, an analyst at The Kelsey Group. Many have sprung up in the past year, with sites such as eFrenzy, OurHouse and SimplyDone.com gaining traction during the past six months.

The category breaks down into lead generators, which line up service providers around the country and give them a channel to customers over the Internet. Some specialize in one category, such as OurHouse, which offers consumers help finding products and service providers for their homes and gardens. Others cover a wide range of services, such as eFrenzy and SimplyDone, which put consumers in touch with a variety of professional service providers, from pet care providers to house cleaners.

An emerging group of sites is trying to schedule appointments, rather than simply linking services and customers. This group includes Jacknabbit.com, PointServe, TimeTrade.com and WebAppoint.com.

Technology is proving to be a major bottleneck for these companies because scheduling is a complicated task.

"A plain vanilla business actually has complex scheduling rules," says Jackie Engel at Connectria, a scheduling software company. "It takes rigorous math and complex algorithms" to reflect how Fred, the plumber, is available every day except Monday and Wednesday afternoons, and that George has regular commitments on Tuesday morning and all day Friday, for example.

There are several reasons to believe the sector will take off, McLaughlin says. The sites give people a way to find several businesses more easily and faster than other means, and they offer consumers some level of quality assurance by screening service providers on the quality of their service, whether they have proper licensing and their openness to customer comments. But still, using the Web to find local service does require a change in consumer behavior, and that's not likely to happen anytime soon.

Market acceptance will be faster for the lead generators, because it puts the job of interacting with the customers directly into the hands of the service provider. Lead generators have started forming partnerships with companies that run Internet Yellow Pages. ServiceMagic.com, for instance, has teamed up with Qwest Communications International; SimplyDone has a deal with SBC Communications.

The sign that service providers have made it on the Web, they say, will be when the big portals such as America Online or Yahoo! adopt them. "Portals like iVillage will become interested when there are enough automated providers that visitors can not only read content about this or that, but book appointments," Engel says . "I don't think it's on their radar yet."

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