From medical offices to car dealerships to coffee shops and restaurants, free Wi-Fi access is fast becoming a prominent customer expectation.
From medical offices to car dealerships to coffee shops and restaurants, free Wi-Fi access is fast becoming a prominent customer expectation. Consumer-facing small and medium-sized businesses not currently offering their customers free Wi-Fi may soon find themselves at a serious competitive disadvantage—if they’re not already. A 2014 study commissioned by Devisescape found that SMBs offering Wi-Fi as a customer amenity saw increases in foot traffic, the length of time customers stayed on premises, and the amount of money they spent. However, simply opening up your business network to customer usage is not a smart option for most SMBs. Security issues and the need to maintain sufficient bandwidth to accommodate business operations call for a more disciplined approach.
For starters, SMBs should conduct a cost-benefit analysis to weigh the potential benefits of customer Wi-Fi against the costs of providing it, says Amy Abatangle, executive vice president and general manager of gateway products at Untangle, Inc. “They will also need to determine whether or not they have the expertise available in-house or through a trusted resource to ensure that extending their network is done in such a way that it provides a reliable, safe service that adds value without compromising their network security.”
There is little doubt that free Wi-Fi makes most SMBs more attractive to customers and potential customers while delivering the foot traffic and customer spend benefits mentioned above, but it also presents additional opportunities for the business, such as improving operational efficiencies and generating leads, says Devon Wright, co-founder of Turnstyle Solutions. “For example, a mall can use Wi-Fi to track the flow of traffic throughout its premises in order to identify bottlenecks, premium real estate locations, or high-density areas for advertising opportunities.” Restaurants can use guest sign-on information to create targeted marketing lists, and retailers can push time-sensitive coupons to shoppers logged on to their networks.
Customer Wi-Fi also offers SMBs significant branding opportunities, one of the easiest being use of the company name as the network’s SSID (the public name of a wireless network). A captive portal page that requires guests to sign on and agree to terms of service provides additional opportunities to speak directly to customers via advertising, promotions, or special offers, Abatangle suggests. “They can also require users to do other things to gain Internet access, such as watch a promotional video or click to dismiss a window with a coupon code for products or services.”
Setting up a free customer Wi-Fi network entails some capital outlays, including hardware purchase, manufacturer’s maintenance contract, cabling, and installation costs. Ongoing expenses include ISP charges for bandwidth and monthly service fees if you use a managed service provider to handle support calls from customers who have issues logging on or other problems. “These costs vary by geography and depend on the options available,” says Chris McKewon, founder and CEO of Xceptional Networks. ROI is easier to measure for some types of businesses, (retail and hospitality installations) than for others (office or professional settings), but it almost always provides some positive return, he adds. “By providing convenience to customers, at the very least, good will is created and repeat business likely generated.”