Growing an online startup business

Our interview with Michael Welch of Blackcircles.com

Michael-Welch-BlackCircles

Michael Welch created Blackcircles.com as a new way for consumers to buy tyres at competitive prices either over the Internet or on the telephone. From the site, consumers can find the best deal from a network of over 1,000 local dealerships.

Blackcircles.com now has a turnover of £18 million and is growing rapidly, so we thought it would be interesting to learn the approaches its founder, Michael Welch has used to grow and sustain the business. Thanks Mike for sharing your story!

Key success factors for the business

Q1. Which factors do you put the initial success of Blackcircles.com down to?

At the very beginning it was mainly about hard work, determination and not ‘taking no for an answer’. If I’m honest there was no real difference between me and the next guy walking down the street – I just wanted it more.

A key factor in the company getting to where it is today though was also having a strong USP. There were a couple of other companies around at the same time with a similar USP and there are now countless smaller operations that seem to have modelled their USP on ours.

Providing a culture of excellent customer service is an obvious way to go, back when you are a new company – at times – it is all you have. When brand awareness is zero to slim, you have to work as hard as possible to show the customers that first use you – and in reality are taking a gamble – that you give a damn and that their gamble has paid off. I worked hard to make sure customers came first.

Future growth factors

2. And now you’re a £18 Million turnover business what is important to your continued growth?

The base of our continued growth actually hasn’t altered much from those early days. Customer satisfaction is still very much key, the desire to make the company a success is there and our USP is just as strong as it was back at the start of the last decade.

I suppose there has been a shift in that we were once the under dogs and now we are leading the pack. Implementing new ideas and technologies has played a major part in helping us to stay on top. I.e. making sure we are up to date with the best SEO techniques, embracing the world of social media and continually trying to offer more attractive services to our customers – the launch of car servicing being one such evolution on the original ‘tyre retailer’ tag that Blackcircles.com started with.
Underneath all that though the company is supported by a foundation of ‘getting the basics right’.

How do you manage and improve service quality

3. I can see your attention to service quality from the site. How do you measure and manage service quality of the website itself to make sure it gives a great quality customer experience?

It’s a vital ongoing process. The most obvious way in which we check on the site’s service quality is through customer feedback. This has been the backbone of many changes we’ve made over the years. Our customers are a great resource and I’m often surprised at the number of people I meet who don’t listen to what their customers are saying to them – it’s free advice, why wouldn’t you take it?

We recently placed Trustpilot on our website which is the online retail industry’s equivalent of Trip Advisor. This shows independent customer reviews and an overall rating. This is a further commitment from us and a great message to customers that we will be doing everything possible to give them a great service. We are passionate about great service.

On top of listening to what our customers are saying we also actively take part in user testing. We’ve been working with a company recently which records anonymous users (which you can define i.e. British person in mid-30’s who doesn’t often use internet to shop) on our site.

Not only are we able to see what they are doing, but they also giving a narration of their thoughts. Its early days but we’ve already discovered areas of the site that can be improved due to this.

The newest form of testing we’re just beginning to get involved with is a heat map style technology. Seeing where users are clicking and where they are not is great. It makes you ask why certain areas of a page are receiving attention whilst the rest is being ignored.

Applying web analytics

Q4. How important do you see web analytics and testing to improving business results? Please outline approaches you use.

As far as I’m concerned if you don’t include web analytics in your marketing plan, then quite simply, you don’t have a marketing plan.

Gone are the days when all web site owners ever worried about was visitor numbers – good riddance too as it means we don’t have to put up with those horrible ‘visitor counters’ that you used to see banded about everywhere.

Understanding not just how many visitors you have, but also how they are using your site is invaluable. We actively check out this information on a regular basis. A quick example would be; what percentage of our visitors search for tyres? From this, what percentage then adds a set of tyres to their basket and then how many actually end up on the payment confirmation page?

Looking at these stats we can see at what point in an order process people exit our site. Then we ask ourselves what content is on each page, are there enough call to actions? Is there enough information? Is it easy to navigate? Could we add in new content to encourage people to buy? If we come up with a potential change that we believe will help a page perform better we then track to see the difference. If conversions go up, great – but how can we improve it further? If they drop – back to the drawing board.

Not only do we see the importance on an ‘order process’ based analysis, but also using it for certain technical aspects. For instance, customers with one browser end up buying in greater percentages than those with a different browser. Ok, so is there a piece of code on a page that is affecting the customers’ experience? Or is it even a demographic thing?

All this is just scratching the surface.
Web analytics can answer so many questions you didn’t even know you needed to ask. The trick is not getting overawed – it is too easy to get lost in an ocean of statistics.

Current (and future) marketing tactics

Q5. What’s got your attention now in current marketing tactics – can you share any approaches you’re testing?

The use of video is an interesting avenue that we are keenly pursuing at the moment. Audio and Visual are right up there in terms of brand development and with the sheer number of opportunities available on the web online videos have never been more exciting. We’re still testing the water at the moment with a new “Blackcircles.com TV” channel on YouTube, but I’m pleased with the results so far.

In a bit of a more traditions sense we are also enhancing our email campaigns. However, I’m very wary of over saturating our customers with information that they will just mark as spam. The key goal for us at the moment is engaging our customers with the brand. Social media is playing a large role in this as well, as you would expect.

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