Published in Business Gazette on Saturday, October 1st 2005

JO Hampson and Georgina Perkins describe themselves as life-change consultants and they can rightly claim to have lived their subject.

They left behind successful careers as senior police officers in London to run their own small business in Cumbria. After turning that venture into an award-winning enterprise it was time for another change.

And that was how they came to launch Stepping Off – a service that provides coaching, training and consultancy services for people wanting to alter their lives for the better.

And helping to develop the consultancy is a powerful website, which endeavors to reach out to individuals and address specific life-changing issues.

Jo, the partner who has most involvement with the consultancy’s site, recognises that it is an integral part of the business and its content has to be monitored, analysed and nurtured.

“Many businesses make the mistake of setting up a site and leaving it to fend for itself. It is a cardinal sin not to update your site. As soon as someone sees that a page was last updated in August 2004, they lose interest,” she said.

When they sold their previous business – The Old Smokehouse – and set about building the consultancy they took professional advice from an e-commerce expert and that has proved very helpful.

Malcolm Stubbs, the owner of Rural Web Designs set up the site “but he always encouraged us to have control over it,” said Jo.

“I went through a steep learning curve and now visit the site every day and regularly make minor changes to the wording. I also add articles, create links and look at the detail of the visits.

“Malcolm gave us software which helped us edit the content as we needed to. We used that until we became familiar with it and felt confident and then we bought the software.”

Now she closely monitors the activity on the site. She regularly checks to see not only how many visits there have been, but also which people are visiting for the first time, who is returning and where they are clicking.

Jo advises anyone who has a website for business purposes to gain a clear picture of how it is being used by potential customers. It is important to discover which pages are proving interesting and which ones are being ignored.

“If they are not frequently visited then I take them off or amend them. I discovered, for example, that the busiest time on the site is Monday after lunch. That is when people are sitting at their desks in the office thinking about a career change. They are fed up with work and type in ‘downshifting’.”

When that happens she is confident that the Stepping Off site will come up no matter what search engine is being used. She also knows it is important to be on the first page in that search.

“Our site originally had five pages and that is one of the reasons it was not making the first page in a search. I dramatically increased the number of pages.

“I also know that it is important to keep updating the site. As I understand it, the search engines, in effect, send out spiders on to the internet which are always looking for vibrations or changes. If a site does not change then the spiders stop visiting that area of the net and you lose your place in the search.

“Buzzwords are also very important, of course, and you need to repeat them in your text. On the other hand, you have to be careful not to give the impression that you are generating spam by repeating them too often.”

There is also a balance to be struck between gaining the visitor’s interest and giving away all that the consultancy has to offer.

“I redesigned my original pages to ensure that I was ringing bells with people. I spoke about specific reasons for wanting to downshift in order to relate more directly with visitors,” Jo explained.

Now visitors can click on a whole list of statements, which might suit their particular situation. They include ‘moving away from a city’, ‘making a life change’, ‘Life after retirement’, ‘Moving to the country’ and many others.

She also sees the website as an extension of her business card. If someone phones or talks to her about downshifting, Jo suggests they look at the site in order to read around the subject and start to consider what they might do next.

“I know from my monitoring of the site that sometimes people are visiting the site for as long as four months before they decide to make contact, but then they decide to book a course.

“When they do come to stay with us they almost feel as if they know us because of what they have read,” she said.

There is a range of life issues which the consultancy focuses upon. Some people just want to learn how to live their life differently, while others are planning a wholesale change of direction.

Georgina also explains that courses are also offered for managers and business people who simply want to improve their skills. There are courses on time management and strategies on offer to show them how to work smarter. They are members of the Cumbria Coaching Network and have begun to work with local groups such as Women in Business.

So, having made a great success with two life-changing ventures, do Jo and Georgina have another change in mind?

“Not just yet, there is plenty to do with Stepping Off. We are looking to encourage large companies to considering offering a course as part of any redundancy package they offer to their staff.”