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FreeWiFi_Body.jpgby Iris Dorbian.

 

One year ago, when Susana Fonticoba launched Right Click Advantage, an e-mail marketing and communication services company in East Hanover, N.J., she ordered cable Internet that included a WiFi hotspot as part of the provider’s regular subscription package. And because Fonticoba offers seminars at her place of business, she opted to offer visitors free WiFi as opposed to creating password-protected accounts.

“I felt it would be an advantage to the seminar attendees and my clients to use the free WiFi while they’re here,” she says. Since installing this feature, Fonticoba has seen healthy client traffic at her studio. Rather than view the free WiFi as a distraction from her company’s mission in serving other small business owners/entrepreneurs, Fonticoba embraces it as a perk that has yielded considerable benefits to her bottom line, particularly in the wake of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy. 

“When Sandy hit last year and our area had electricity while many other communities did not, I put out the word that I welcomed fellow business owners to come to my studio and get some work done, offering my free WiFi,” she recalls. “Why shouldn’t we want to make life convenient and comfortable for our customers? They are why we are in business.”

To her surprise, no one took Fonticoba up on her offer. However, she did receive many thanks from people for it when she saw them.

“I believe it benefited my business by silently growing the bond of trust in the relationship,” she says. “The unsaid message was, ‘You can count on me to help.’ That is a message I wanted to communicate about my business in a quiet, graceful way.”

Fonticoba is an example of a growing contingent of small business owners who view having free WiFi at their venue as both a perk and necessity. Although she does acknowledge the drawbacks—customers abusing the WiFi without patronizing the business—Fonticoba is an ardent proponent of its advantages, feeling they outnumber the negatives.

Kristin Fintel, owner of the six-year-old Chehalem Ridge Bed & Breakfast, an inn located in Newberg, Oregon, also views having free WiFi at her place of business, as an imperative. Fintel says she has offered free WiFi at her business from its inception. The decision to include this feature as a customer amenity was informed largely by the experience she and her husband, who’s in charge of IT operations at the B & B, have had while on the road.

FreeWiFi_PQ.jpg“When we travel, WiFi is important to us,” Fintel explains. “If it’s checking e-mail for work or checking on area attractions, [free WiFi] makes things easier. With both of our jobs, if we stay connected enough to solve small problems while traveling, there are fewer issues to deal with when we get back. Since we designed our B&B, it had to come with WiFi. It never crossed our mind to charge for something that we feel is a basic service.”

Not that offering free WiFi has come without snags.

Louis Rosas-Guyon, president of R-Squared Computing, a North Miami-based technology consulting firm that works with clients that offer free WiFi, says there are negatives that small business owners need to be aware of before they go this route. “Once you offer it, people will complain when it’s unavailable,” he says. “The airlines are experiencing this phenomenon when in-flight WiFi is down.”

He also adds that sometimes it might be hard for retail shops and food-service companies to justify the expense, particularly if the feature brings in “squatters who sit and use your connection without buying.”

Still, the pros might greatly outweigh the cons. Unlike some business owners that may be wary of offering this feature for fear it could deflect attention from their business, Fonticoba and Fintel express little reservation.

“I believe in creating the atmosphere for my clients that I would appreciate for myself,” Fonticoba says. “And hey, that hotspot didn’t cost me anything, so why not? This way, [my clients] leave my secure connection alone and I don’t have to worry about passwords. For returning clients, I do have a guest account on my own Internet connection with a password.”

For small business owners contemplating adding free WiFi as a customer perk, consider these tips.

Do your research

As with anything costly, be it a car, a house or computer equipment, never buy anything unless you do your research (which may include cost comparisons) first. Similarly, you should never sign up with any Internet provider unless you do your due diligence and find out the features they’re offering in their subscription package.

Fintel says it’s also important that any connection provide enough Internet broadband and router security for customers to perform a slew of activities such as watching videos or checking e-mails.

Establish a good understanding of your IT infrastructure

This will be invaluable when your WiFi service is experiencing a blackout or massive glitch. Fintel admits that having her husband act as the IT troubleshooter has been a key asset to her. “If I had to pay for that, I might look to establish a contractual relationship with someone who understands my guest needs,” she says.

Keep your business connection secure from intrusions

Offering free WiFi can be an excellent way of fostering a climate of good will at your business. But it cannot be at the expense of putting your business at risk by affording customers unwanted access to confidential information. Protect your business by having a separate WiFi network that is password-protected and up-to-date with other IT safeguards.

Fonticoba agrees. “What small business owners should not do is open up their own Internet connection and let the world hop on,” she advises. “Keep that password secure for yourself and your staff.”

Know your customers

Since launching her business, Fonticoba has made this a best practice. “If you want your customers to feel welcome and to encourage them to come back on a regular basis, make it as comfortable and convenient as possible for them,” she advises. “Anticipate what the average customer might want. I work with entrepreneurs and they have harrowing days like I do. So I keep simple refreshments on hand as well as phones and Internet for their use.”

Offering free WiFi at your business can be an excellent way of securing customer buy-in. But it must never be done at the expense of your business’s long-term security and success.

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