I’ve operated a private fitting station for about 9 years now. Most of my clients are expectant moms, who are due within weeks or days and can’t find an appointment in time elsewhere Most of my business is home service, often for the same moms who are too busy, on bedrest or otherwise don’t want to drive when they are 9 months pregnant. A few past clients had just delivered and needed service in the hospital parking lot, in order to be safe at discharge time. Unless they are delivering at the single hospital in our county [of 1 million people] that has a few techs on staff, I don’t think any other area fitting station is going to be able to help these parents!
In 2011, about 30% of my business came from Google searches, another 30% from the NHTSA fitting station locator and the rest via referrals from other area departments, organizations and past clients. By the end of 2012, very few clients indicated they found me on the locator. My business, that had been growing slowly throughout the recession, instead had a significant downturn in contacts last year. It took me quite some time to figure it out.
What happened to my business? Government happened. NHTSA changed to a map-based fitting station locator. Previously, you typed in a zip code and a list came up with results in the same zip code and state. Granted, only those in the exact zip code typed were emphasized, but mine could easily be found from nearby zip codes if you scrolled down or searched the page for the city name. Now, you instead see a handy map with pins showing nearby fitting stations. This is a lot more user-friendly for caregivers and a nice improvement to the locator overall. Many search engines have this type of display. My area looks like the image at the right. I’m located roughly in the middle, where no pins are shown. With budget cuts in recent years, most pins in my county no longer actually accept any appointments at all, and most of those that still do will limit inspections to residents of that city only. Just a handful remain that accept appointments regardless of your city of residence. I wonder how many other fitting stations in the entire Chicago area may be able to accommodate caregivers with next-day or possibly even same-day appointments, sometimes even on evenings and weekends?
The reason many parents can no longer find my fitting station is because NHTSA’s map pins are tied to a physical address. So, my information is not shown at all, even if you scroll down or search the page for my city’s name. Since I am not a police, fire, healthcare or other taxpayer supported organization, I do not have a brick & mortar location that can be published as a business address. I operate out of my home, mostly traveling to parents’ homes and places of business. Even though I state my service is by appointment only, publishing my home address means walk-ins. These may come when my teenage children are alone in the house, when we have a babysitter or some other inconvenient time of day when I am not present or available. For privacy and security reasons, I simply don’t want this information to be made public on the fitting station locator.
I’ve contacted a couple people at NHTSA over the last six months, but apparently there is nothing they are willing or able to do. Not too shocking, considering my fitting station is fairly unique, probably one of a handful that provides service to the home. So, my business will continue to suffer. I just wish they could use a placeholder pin or use cross streets or some other way of including me on zip code searches, without requiring my exact street number. For example, I have a Google Places listing that provides my information in a very similar map format, but Google smartly gives me an option to keep my address private! (see photo, right)
So, I have a choice. List my address to the public to be included on the locator, or keep it private and lose clients. It’s not really a great choice. I wish it had not been forced upon me by the government. What would you do?