- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 23, 2005

More small-business owners are seeking an online marketplace, prompting a Herndon domain name provider to pump up its service as business grows from merely providing Web site gurus with a domain name to walking Internet neophytes through .com and .org.

“In the old days, most of our customers were tech-centric people,” said Champ Mitchell, chairman and chief executive officer of Network Solutions. “You didn’t buy a name if you didn’t have tech savvy … now small businesses want to be online.”

In addition to registering Internet domain names, Network Solutions sells accessories, like e-mail and placement in search engines, and assists customers in building their Web sites.

The company, which until 2000 was the monopoly domain name provider, lists nearly all the Fortune 500 companies as customers, Mr. Mitchell said. But those companies already have their sites and their own Web technicians.

Today’s customer is a small-business owner who finds his company has to be online to survive in a world where people “Google” instead of pick up the Yellow Pages to find a product.

“People in small business are not technology savvy and are starting on the Internet,” Mr. Mitchell said. “We want to deal with the technology and let them make the choices.”

The company, at NetworkSolutions.com, responded by putting a greater focus on customer service this year to meet the demands of small-business owners, which total 90 percent of the company’s 4 million customers. Network Solutions has found that to attract small-business owners, it has to assure them they are going to slowly walk through how to put a Web site together.

It’s a long way from the Network Solutions of 2000, when the domain name industry was opened to competition and the company went into a tailspin.

“We became the company that lost market share faster than any other monopoly — we were bleeding cash,” Mr. Mitchell said.

Customers waited more than an hour to talk to someone, and employees were rewarded if they could talk the customer into buying a more-expensive package.

This year, Network Solutions made changes, trying to stand out in a crowded field — answering questions about how to fix a broken link or whether an accessory, such as a menu or credit card processor, is necessary.

“We changed everything about the company and the way it provides service,” Mr. Mitchell said.

Today, customer service awards for extra sales are out, Mr. Mitchell said. Customers get through in an average 15 seconds.

The changes and additional staff have cost money — he declined to say how much — but Mr. Mitchell says it’s necessary.

His theory is customers who start with a one-page site will return for upgrades such as e-mail, scheduling capabilities, menus or order forms, if they are happy with the service.

Joy Murphy, a Network Solutions customer and owner of AuntJoy.com, a Christmas stocking company, likes having her questions answered immediately.

“If I’m having a problem with something … I can pick up the phone and get assistance. I don’t have to wait 48 hours to get an e-mail and if they don’t answer my question, send it again,” Ms. Murphy said.

Network Solutions is No. 2 in domain names with 7 million Web sites under management. GoDaddy.com manages 8 million sites. Other top competitors include Tucows, ENom.com and INWW.com.

One year of registration is $34.99 at Network Solutions. GoDaddy.com costs $8.95, and Register.com is $35 for a year.

Jay Westerdal, president and CEO of Name Intelligence Inc., an industry consultant, expects the industry to continue its climb.

Its clients include Network Solutions.

“The small companies have a huge growing segment. There are a lot of people with day jobs looking to start a company online,” he said.

Network Solutions, which gives small-business owners a do-it-yourself palette and guidance, competes against a hoard of Web consulting companies that do custom design, such as Aplus.net, CAB Multimedia and Sophea Quick Sites.

Now owned by a private company, Network Solutions doesn’t reveal financial information, but reported revenue of $125 million in the first half of 2003, when it was owned by VeriSign, a public technology company. Pivotal Group Inc., a Phoenix investment firm, bought Network Solutions for $100 million in late 2003.

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