How times have changed. Customers waiting for new tires at a garage, for an appointment with their doctor or lawyer, or perhaps for friends at a restaurant, used to have to rifle through outdated magazines or, at best, be treated to a weak cup of coffee. Today, they surf the Internet, read emails or even get some work done, as small businesses of all types have found that offering free WiFi does a much better job of keeping customers happy while they wait.
A recent survey found that when small businesses provided free WiFi for customers, they:
- Increased foot traffic
- Expanded the time customers spent on the premises
- Boosted the amounts that customers spent
Although it’s a common fear that offering WiFi will encourage customers to simply hang around and take up space, the survey found that only a small percentage (less than 0.1%) of customers spent less when free WiFi was available.
In fact, three-fourths of the small businesses said their free WiFi offering was either important or very important to the success of their businesses.
Best Practices for Offering Free WiFi
To get the most out of your free WiFi offering, here are some tips that will keep your customers happy and your business safe.
Secure the network: It might seem easiest to invite your customers to use the same WiFi network your employees use. Don’t do it. You put your all-important business at risk of being hacked. If you have a tight budget and have to watch your cash flow, it’s usually possible to set up a “guest” network using your existing router. But if you go this route, make sure to encrypt your network with WiFi Protected Access 2 (WPA2). (NOTE: This protocol is different from simple WPA; make sure you know the difference.) For even more security, you can change your WiFi setting on your business network so it won’t even show up on customers’ “available networks” lists when they boot up their mobile devices.
Password-protect the network: Make sure to assign a password to the network, and only give it to paying customers. Change the password frequently – at least once a day. This gives you much more control over who is on your network – and will discourage hackers from “spoofing,” or pretending to be your legitimate network to steal login or credit card data from customers.
Block certain websites: Higher-end routers are often worth the investment because they give you the ability to set up “captive portals.” In these portals, you can get your customers to agree to terms of service before they get access to the Internet. You can also filter content to block undesirable websites – so that customers in a family-friendly restaurant, for example, can’t view adult content. This will give you legal protection as well as protect your brand. For example, many small businesses block peer-to-peer file-sharing services because so much copyrighted material can be illegally downloaded from there. Blocking is easy with a business-class router.
Extend your brand: Another advantage to setting up a portal is that you can create an attractive page promoting your goods or services, offering deals or announcing upcoming events. Once you’ve registered your customers through the WiFi sign-up process, you can email them with sales, coupons and other reasons to come back.
Make your business a “community hub”: One of the nicest benefits of WiFi is that it encourages groups as well as individuals. One survey found that 20% of businesses reinvented themselves as “community hubs,” welcoming teams from local businesses, sports clubs and book groups. This makes your business a destination and increases your visibility in the community.
Be alert: Know who is using your WiFi. It’s unfortunate, but hackers with little more than a laptop or a small device can spoof and hijack your WiFi access point in just seconds, and can then steal data from anyone who logs onto the spoofed network. These kinds of attacks happen often in crowded, tourist-oriented areas. This is another reason to require a purchase and change your password frequently – you’ll have face-to-face contact with all the users of your WiFi, which might discourage hackers from choosing your business to exploit.
As an added consideration, although statistically you’re likely to experience increased sales by offering WiFi, if you’re concerned about customers overstaying their welcome, try installing 30-minute limits, reserving tables on which no laptops are allowed, restricting WiFi access during peak hours or requiring a minimum purchase to obtain the WiFi code.
Hot Spot Competition from Your Own Router?
You should also be aware that some carriers are exploiting a little known-feature on the routers they lease to their customers. These routers have two antennas, one for you (the customer) to use, the other which allows them to put out a WiFi signal for pay-as-you-go access to other users—from your router. Indeed, a class action suit has been filed against one carrier, using the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to charge that by using customers’ electricity to help power the company’s giant network, the carrier is exploiting its customers for profit.
WiFi Is the New Candy
Instead of placing the hard-candy dish and the dog-eared magazines at the register, you should consider offering WiFi. Your customers are, after all, accustomed to WiFi everywhere – in their homes, in their workplaces, even on buses and trains. Increasingly, it’s an expectation that they’ll get it at the small businesses they frequent. Do it sooner rather than later to gain a competitive edge.