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Catering for the online audience

Even if you still choose to book a table at a restaurant over the phone rather than via the internet, the chances are becoming increasingly high that you went online first to look at the establishment’s pictures, read sample menus or find out what other customers had to say about their experience there. We take a look at how best to establish your presence on the internet – even if you are a complete technophobe

The fact is that while the old ways of doing business still apply – such as word-of-mouth recommendations, passing trade and favourable press reviews – there is no ignoring the internet as a sales channel. As consumers enjoy increasing online freedom, they are not only far more web and IT literate, they demand greater sophistication in terms of what’s on offer and the service they receive from you. As a barometer of this sophistication and people’s ability to find what they are looking for on the web, the term ‘to google’ is now officially a verb in the Oxford English Dictionary, and if your business isn’t online then it isn’t on most people’s radar.

Mark Clarke, founder of Clarke’s Caterers knows all about the benefits of choosing wisely

Mark Clarke of Clarke's Caterers

Mark runs his rapidly expanding catering business from a central location in Walthamstow, London where employees manage sales, finance and online ordering via an internet connection from specialist business broadband provider, UK Online. Mark’s business, 75 per cent of which is dedicated to contract catering, prides itself on a fast, effective and yet personal service. One of the company’s high-profile contracts is with the London Borough of Walthamstow where Clarke’s provides catering for staff canteens and events. With over 15 buffets to organise every day for the London Borough of Waltham Forest alone, Clarke’s depends on the speed and reliability of broadband to administer online ordering and underpin vital communication with customers.

“I make it my business to deliver a prompt, personal service and that includes making sure I see my clients regularly and maintain my relationships with them,” says Clarke. “A reliable broadband service is key to ensuring that I don’t have to worry about everyday communication and online ordering – leaving me and my team to provide the personal service. If we did not have first class broadband, we wouldn’t be able to manage the 500 plus emails and website enquiries we receive each week.”

Getting started

Website“In business today, a professional-looking website is a basic requirement rather than a luxury,” explains Chris Stening, managing director of internet service provider, UK Online. “You need to be able to display your products and services in the right way and at the very least answer simple questions from customers: who are you, what can you do for me and how can I get in touch?”

For smaller businesses and start-ups, getting online can seem daunting, but take heart, the process is actually very straightforward. It is advisable, though, to look around for a good business internet provider that offers benefits such as free IT support as part of the package to get you get up and running.

What are the key things to consider when developing your business online?

Obviously there will be different priorities based on the type of business you run. For example, a contract caterer or publican may require robust online ordering systems, whereas a restaurateur will need to pay more attention to the website as the ‘shopfront’ to attract customers. There are however, some common areas for all those in the catering industry to consider when looking for a broadband service. Here is a five-point checklist to ensure you start your online business as you mean to continue.

Speed & bandwidth

Look for a high-speed internet service that offers low contention, which means fewer other businesses are using the same service at the same time as you. It’s a bit like having your own lane on the motorway. Also, choose a supplier and package that offers unlimited usage as, although you may only need it occasionally, it is vital to plan for business use.

Support 

Honestly evaluate your own level of technical expertise as this will have considerable bearing on how much support you need from a supplier. Also consider whether your business depends on being connected to the internet for its day-to-day running. If so, it may be worth considering a supplier that offers round-the-clock support, which should be included in the package with no hidden extra costs.

Google searchYour brand online

Ensure you have the right domain names that are relevant for your business. Bear in mind that you may need to secure different variants for your company name – for example, ‘joebloggscaterers.com’ or ‘jbcaterers.co.uk’ – and you will need to plan ahead to secure names for any sidelines or new markets you may be developing.

Your website

Take a realistic view of your website development and decide, based on your technical ability, whether you want to build and, most importantly, update the site yourself or whether you need the help of a design agency. You should evaluate how critical your website is to your business and consider external hosting options with backed-up services to ensure your ‘shop front’ is always available online.

Access to email, contacts and shared information

Consider whether it is necessary for your business to be continually connected or just ‘as and when’. Do you need to access your email in real time or can it wait? Having access to all contacts means you can make that call now rather than later. As your business grows, you may also need to share emails, contacts and online calendars across a number of employees – some of whom may work remotely. In this instance, it could be worth considering a hosted email service that allows you to access information in real time from any device, anywhere and at any time with information stored remotely on secure servers.

Run this simple checklist before approaching any internet providers and you will save yourself many a headache later on. In the catering industry responsiveness is everything and those who succeed in the digital age will be those who can harness technology for greater speed and flexibility. Your customers won’t wait on you.

For further ideas on how the internet can help your business, visit www.ukonline.net or phone 0800 053 2222.

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