Online marketplace marries Web services, SMS

Bridging the gap between a Web application and mobile phone text messaging has resulted in more prompt information management at Melbourne-based e-marketplace Service Central.

After finding it too difficult to procure good contractors for large cleaning companies, Danial Ahchow developed an eBay-like services portal where people can submit a job request and choose respondent suppliers based on previous feedback.

Service Central was developed on Linux with the MySQL database and PHP scripting language, and comprises five different systems - from the consumer system to see who has responded to job requests, to a CRM system for service providers to see which jobs they have been offered. There is also a response team for managing all the jobs.

Ahchow said because of the mobile nature of tradespeople, use of the Web would often slow them down so he looked into two-way SMS as a communications medium.

"Consumers didn't like using the Internet so we set up a call centre which logs details into the Web site; overnight the increase in jobs logged was 10-fold," Ahchow said. "It went from 10 to 20 over the Internet and we now do 350 a week."

Service Central bridged the Web-SMS divide by writing a Web service application in PHP which interfaces with SMS service provider Messagemedia's online gateway.

PHP will call the service and send a message from the MySQL database, Ahchow said.

"The good thing about SMS is that it is instantaneous," he said. "SMS can take a 60-year old tradie and have him interact with Internet instantaneously."

When a job comes through that matches the criteria specified by the supplier, the system sends an SMS with a description and location of the job. The supplier then replies and if the consumer wants to receive two quotes the first two get sent through.

Ahchow said the biggest problem with SMS is the 160-character limit to work with, and although more information is sent in an e-mail and mobile e-mail is on the rise, few small businesses are using it.

Service Central also developed its own CRM system for its sales team.

"That took a little bit of effort to build and we still have four full-time programmers working on it for version updates," Ahchow said. "Having CRM available on a 3G mobile phone is promising, but we don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves."

Service Central is now starting to work on new functionality so people can identify friends and contacts and a system to refer preferred suppliers to others.

Ahchow said the marketplace can also be applied to mortgage brokers and financial planners, but business services like cleaning and security are quite popular.

The developers are now adding more AJAX-style features to the Web interface and implementing high-availability on the backend servers.

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