BT boasts that its small business portal, BT Click For Business, is the largest in the UK. Not bad for something that started life in 1998 simply as a vehicle for BT to market its subscription services to small businesses. Two years on, and it's developed into a potentially very useful site for business users. Furthermore, it's still being developed and there's the promise of more helpful content still to come.
Of course, the site remains primarily as a vehicle for marketing BT's internet service provider (ISP) business, as the catch line to the site - "Internet access, ecommerce solutions, business information, web design, hosting" - clearly demonstrates. As such, it is currently plugging BT's SurfTime offerings. These packages aim to promote the take-up of ecommerce by cutting the cost of internet access and encouraging small businesses to get online.
But Grant Broster, BT's head of internet for businesses, said that other content is taken seriously. His team recognises that its small business customers want as much relevant content as possible in one place so that they don't have to spend time searching. "Some 75 per cent of our customers said they wanted the content all in one place," said Broster. "It's our job to persuade them to stay with us."
BT offers a range of ISP and web design services aimed at small businesses, but Broster said that it has built over 1000 websites for customers since the service was started some five months ago. The site gives information on other internet access packages other than SurfTime. BT Access, for instance, offers dial-up internet access, 10 email addresses, 20Mb of web space, DIY web building tools and a 24 hour, 50p per minute helpdesk.
BT also offers additional web building tools through a range of design packages called BT Web Publisher. At the top end here, BT offers custom design with prices starting at £500 for a four-page site. The site also markets BT Store Centre, an online shopping package.
There are a number of channels that aim to give the small business customer all the information about the outside world it might need. In general, they contain a mix of news analysis and links to possibly useful sites.
The News & Sport channel is a daily feed from Reuters with world, national, business and sporting news, and regional news provided by several local papers.
Travel takes you to an agency which is tailored to the business traveller with links to the Regus office and meeting room rental site, and Lernout & Hauspie's free online language translator.
Other channels contain an events directory, links to UK distribution firms, recruitment agencies and consultants, and the BT employment library.
There's also Markets & Companies, a channel which contains useful links to sites with export information and franchising data, and to government small business sites. It includes market research and intelligence designed to be of use to small businesses.
The services section includes all those pages of the site which generally require the customer to part with money. The site offers some low-cost general business services, and although these are few in number at present, this is an area that Broster sees increasing over time.
The most recent addition was only a couple of weeks ago, when Staffpay.net's online payroll services were added to the site. "We recognise that payroll is a complicated area for many small businesses," said Broster. "The availability of this service will free small businesses from the burden of legislation - they will no longer need to know the ins and outs of employment law. It is more cost effective than bureau-based alternatives."
Under the services banner, the portal also offers downloadable versions of Tax calc, Which Software's '150 Letters That Get Results' and the 'A to B of Britain' route planner from the AA.
Also in this section are a range of pro-forma legal documents from the Desktop Lawyer service of LawNet, an online service that links together a number of regional law firms.
The site provides a link to Smarterwork.com - a service which was launched in March and styles itself as a quality-assured outsourcing platform. Essentially, this means it gives the small business customer access to individuals and companies such as web designers and builders, journalists, copywriters, researchers, graphic designers, desktop publishers and secretaries - services which they might want to use on a temporary or contract basis.
One of the most interesting areas of the site is the Trade Park - the area where BT acts as the middleman for its small business customers, allowing them to promote their business to consumers on the internet.
Every Trade Park member is entitled to post their company, email and website addresses, their top five contacts and top 10 products and prices, and is given space to add a 2000-character description of the company and its services.
Broster said that BT intends to add to the services as it goes along. "There's an element of picking best of breed and taking what we are offered in this," he said. "We are approached because with more than 100,000 users they see us as a form of distributor."
There are potentially exciting developments just around the corner. "We're not very far away from personalisation. It's being implemented now," said Broster.
"It will mean that users can see the site as they want. We're watching what people use and what works for them. We will be introducing a range of other services such as ADSL, multimedia business content and financial news in video format, and we're in the advanced stages of looking at application service provider-type [offerings] for introduction later this year."
There is an awful lot of useful information on the BT Click For Business portal, and with 100,000 customers and growing, it's virtually guaranteed that BT is going to continue to work hard at making sure that the information is timely and of high quality.
If there's any quibble about the portal - and this is by no means a minor one - it is that the presentation leaves a lot to be desired. You sometimes have to dig very deep to find what you're looking for, and it's not always clear whether or not a service is free.
It's no doubt partly due to there being so much information on the site, but it's disappointing, to say the least, in a organisation which is marketing its own web design services to the outside world.
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