Web Host Startup
Web Host Billing and Account Setup Software Review: WHMCS – Part II
This is the second part of the product review for: WHMCS – WHMCompleteSolution. Part I of the review can be found here.
Modifying the look of WHMCS
To modify the overall look of WHMCS you will need to work in the template section of the installation files. Depending on how your existing website is built, this can be very easy or a little more complicated. For the review I am not going too deep into modifying the template. Changing the header image was a breeze. Just by replacing the existing header image with our own we completely changed the look of WHMCS. We then went into the different templates to see how difficult they would be to change. The templates can be opened in Dreamweaver and modified. The language file also needs to be modified if you are working on the template modification. If you have modified other software templates to meet your design needs you should not have many problems doing the same thing with WHMCS. One option we would like to see would be able to work with header and bottom templates and not just one template for – let’s say – the order page or the index page. It might make things easier to adjust to a certain layout. Overall the template modification is not too complicated.
By the way – the overnight cronjob worked fine right out of the box. We received a notification email from our server this morning. Nice. For anyone having difficulties working with cron, this should give some peace of mind.
Customizing email messages that the system generates is fairly easy, too. A built-in online browser based editor allows for easy customization of all email messages. You can choose from many system variables to beef your messages. This allows for very personalized looking emails.
We now tried to order our newly created product and to see how the system would behave. Some minor adjustments later and we liked the order process. WHMCS allows you set options for the order page and we tweaked it for how we would use it in a production environment. One negative thing: We used the Google Toolbar Auto fill option to fill out the order form. The toolbar became confused with the street address and email address we had to manually correct the entries. Hopefully this can be changed by the developers at one point. The order process is easy, but several pages have to be accessed if you use the standard form (default setting). You can switch the settings from the admin control panel to a single page order form. Personally we are fans of short order forms and the single order form is exactly what we were looking for. It takes away some of the worries that a client changes his mind before reaching the final submit button. In general the order process is easy to go through and should be sufficient. Just choose the order form that you like most. As a result of the order we placed, we received the client and the admin notification emails. The output looks very good even with the default email text options. There is not much work involved to get the order process working exactly the way you want it.
Back into the admin panel we see the pending process and review it. In this case we trust ourselves and approve the order. The hosting account setup in WHM is done automatically and works just fine. That will make life very easy once orders start rolling in.
The Support Area
Almost every customer will need support one day. WHMCS comes with a built-in helpdesk ticket system and knowledgebase. The knowledge base is easy to populate and does a good job in regards to functionality and accessibility. The helpdesk ticket system offers basic functionality + some features not necessarily found in every competing solution. The support system supports Private Replies for just admins, Mail Piping, On Hold & In Progress tickets & Attachments.
Customer and system admins are notified via email once the ticket is open or responded to. Here we see some of the limitations of WHMCS. Advanced helpdesk ticket functionality is not available. Ticket notifications seem to be send to anyone registered as admin/support personnel. Tickets cannot be assigned to a person or a group.
For a new web host starting out this will be sufficient, but for a larger operation with 500+ clients this system will not handle the growth and is not really suitable. Given that WHMCS is sold as a billing and client management solution and less as a helpdesk ticketing software, this is perfectly fine. The small web host operation can use this system until growth and client base justify the expense for a more professional helpdesk system. The limitation of the helpdesk system can be overcome by buying a dedicated helpdesk software down the road.
If you are considering switching from a competing product – WHMCS has import scripts available for switching from WHM Auto Pilot and ModernBill.
WHMCS – the company and customer support
A few days before we actually received a copy of WHMCS we contacted the maker of the software through their support forums with some pre-sales questions. The support we received from Matt (the main developer) was quick and good. He came down to the point and helped us out getting our questions answered. We have not had really any support issues since we received a copy of the software, but if normal support is handled in the same way as our pre-sales inquiries in the support forum, we do feel that customer support is in good hands. There is not much company information available on the website – a little more information should serve well to get more clients and to increase the confidence that WHMCS is around for a long time. However – we talked to Matt Pugh the main developer of WHMCS. An interview with him and more information will be available soon on Webhostingresourcekit.com.
WHMCS is competitively priced. It’s not the cheapest solution around, but by far not the most expensive one either. A customer can choose between leasing the software and buying it. Overall the system seems to be suitable for smaller and mid-sized web hosting businesses. Long-term should show how it can handle a larger environment in a production environment. The available functionality is good and gets the job done. The billing and client management piece makes a very good impression and for us that would be the main reason to purchase this software. The software is easy to figure out and intuitive. Setup/configuration should not pose problems for most people. The helpdesk is good for starting out, but if you are starting out for the long haul it might be worth to buy the helpdesk separately right away and to skip the hassle of migrating customers to a new system. This last recommendation is not just affecting WHMCS, this advise applies to many other billing and client management software packages, too. We give WHMCS two thumbs up. A good price buys you a good value.
WHMCS can be found at http://www.whmcs.com
Disclaimer: Webhostingresourcekit.com has not been paid to do write this review. This review is based on our personal experience of using WHMCS.
© 2006 – Web Hosting Resource Kit
Web Host Billing and Account Setup Software Review: WHMCS – Part I
We are currently in the market looking at a few web hosting business related client management, customer billing and hosting account setup software solutions. Most people – when asked – refer to Modernbill or Clientexec as great tools. Both applications have a great reputation. After a little more research we ran into a newcomer in the market offering great functionality and a lot of features, too. WHMCS = WHMCompleteSolution is a Client Management, Billing & Support System designed for CPanel and WHM Web Hosts. The feature list is extensive and pricing is very competitive. As mentioned – we are in the market for a client management and billing solution, WHMCS got our attention. Currently we have budgeted a 250 client license of Modernbill and an owned license of Kayako’s eSupport helpdesk software. Both applications are feature-rich and would be a solid foundation for a new web host as well as for large web hosting businesses. They are not cheap, but for a web host entering the market a good investment as it reduces the need later on to migrate to a different system.
Almost by accident we received the opportunity to work with a full version of WHMCS. We decided to put the software to the test and see what it can do. Maybe this would be a solid solution that would a) give us similar functionality compared to Modernbill and eSupport and b) save us a lot of money at the same time.
Instead of comparing feature lists and browsing through support forums, we were now able to use the software on our own server. We started installing the software. After unzipping the installation files we took a quick look at the installation instructions. The steps to get the software installed are fairly easy and we finished the installation in no-time. One cronjob needs to be setup, but the entire command line is available for copy and paste so that even non-technical people can take care of this.
Accessing the admin panel did not work – we do not have Ioncube installed on this server. But the WHMCS installer package is prepared for that scenario. We uploaded the available Ioncube folder with the runtime loader for Ioncube and instantly the software works. The available documentation is detailed and easy to understand.
The installation process already includes some setup pieces – so, be prepared to have your server or reseller account information available. Note: You can add additional servers or reseller WHM accounts later on.
Once we logged into the admin panel we took some time to look around and to make us familiar with the interface. The available options are:
Home – Pending Orders – Clients – Support Center – Transactions – Configuration – Reports
For the new setup we choose to inspect the "Configuration" area. After a quick non-guided tour we decided to jump into the setup and see how problematic or easy it would be get going. We want to sell web hosting and setting up a product is our first choice. The product setup form is well structured. Two things were just a little bit confusing for a first time user. 1) The product price – personally I think it could be beneficial to see a currency symbol next to the cost field to make life just a notch easier. 2) WHM Account setup details – just enter all the account features and a package name as needed to associate the right feature settings and allowances with your product. If the existing package is selected it might be easier (for the first time user) if the manual options would be grayed out. These 2 items are not a major issue. Just a small thing that could be improved or be structured differently in our opinion.
Once we finished the product setup we moved on the payment gateways. We decided to use PayPal and Credit Card (Authorize.net) as the available payment options. Both options are very easy to setup. The Credit Card option is named "Authorize.net" in the system and shows up as the same on the order form in the beginning. The name "Authorize.net" might be confusing to consumers as they cannot really associate anything with it. You can easily change the display name for this option from "Authorize.net" to something more descriptive like "Credit Card Payment". A confirming look at the order form showed the results of the change.
Enough for one evening of testing. Please see the second part of our review here.
© 2006 – Web Hosting Resource Kit
Custom/Private DNS Servers and their Importance to a Reseller
The term “custom DNS server” or "private DNS server" refers to the DNS servers that a reseller is using to provide DNS services to his customers. The customer has to have his domain registration point to the DNS servers of a web host where his website is hosted so that visitors can find it. As a reseller a web host does not have his own infrastructure. He is leasing the infrastructure from the actual web host. It looks bad from a business standpoint to a customer if he signs up with (Reseller) web host X-Hosting.com, but the DNS servers he would have to use belong to Super-host.com.
As a hosting reseller you do not want your customers to know that you are reselling them web hosting from a somebody else. The concern is that the clients would bypass you and buy web hosting directly from the source to save money. In order to keep your actual infrastructure anonymous you need to remove any connections between you and the real hosting company you are using to provide your services. Custom DNS servers are used so that a customer uses ns1.YourDomainName.com and ns2.YourDomainName.com for the DNS setting of their domain and not the names of the DNS servers that your host provided you with. This step will make it very difficult for a client to identify you as a reseller.
Custom DNS servers are also an important piece when it comes to moving off a reseller account to your own server hardware. Instead of forcing all your customers to change their domain DNS servers you can instead just change the IP addresses used with your custom DNS servers to point to the new IP addresses on your server. Do not do this to move your customers websites secretly – which you technically could. A move should always be communicated. If you plan a move by changing your DNS Server IP addresses, communicate this to the customers. The nice thing then is, that you can pretty much a large number of user accounts and website very fast, very quick.
Resellers should use custom DNS servers as an additional step to brand their services and to hide the fact that they are buying hosting from a larger company. If a reseller web host (a host selling hosting to resellers) does not offer custom DNS servers, a reseller should look somewhere else to buy his hosting from. Nowadays there is no reason why a reseller should not get his own custom DNS servers assigned.
Web Hosting: How to check orders for fraud?
It’s order time. A customer signed up for your services. You are reviewing the order. You now have a new customer and will be making $X dollars more a month, but what if this purchase was done with a stolen credit card? You would be facing a chargeback on your account and eventually get into reliability problems with your merchant account provider. If you get hit with a lot of charge backs this can either cause a rise in your rates at your credit card merchant or worse your merchant account being canceled and terminated. Therefore it is very important that you screen all incoming orders for credit card fraud.
Order IP Location Doesn’t Match Billing Address
Check each order IP for its geographical location. Does it match the address of the order at all? If you get an order from Joe Average of Chicago and the order IP address is China or Romania, this should ring the alarm bell. If possible implement the AVS (Address Verification) feature of your merchant account. This useful feature automatically does this check for you when running a credit card charge. You should still verify IP and geographical address in addition to that.
Email Address Verification
Taking a closer look at an email address of an order is another good step to identify fraud. Free email accounts are often used to place fraudulent orders. But then again – some people use free email accounts to have an off network email address for better availability. Remember that you are a web host how would the customers communicate with you via email, if their server is down (worst case scenario). Some web hosts make it a habit to refuse orders coming from email addresses from countries like Russia or China as these are especially known for a lot of fraud. An email address alone is usually not an indicator of a fraudulent order, but it can be an important piece of the puzzle.
Fraudulent orders are often placed for the highest dollar amount possible. In hosting this might mean that a customer is trying to pre-pay for 6 months or a full year. Stolen credit cards tend to be used to buy a longer period since the thief knows the credit card will be canceled and is hoping that it just takes a while so that he can use the hosting account for more criminal activity.
Does the information such as customer name and address appear to be formatted correctly? Criminals placing a fraudulent order often don’t take the time to use proper writing/spelling. They just use lower case writing for the entire name and address information. Or they might just use all caps. Watch for both as they are good indicators if the order is placed from a real customer or not. Anyone taking a little pride in himself uses proper upper case / lower case writing for his personal name and address.
Sooner or later you will be facing a fraudulent order. Fraud cannot be completely avoided, but with good fraud checking procedures in place and some experience under your belt you will reduce the risk of having a fraudulent order slip through. If in doubt, just calling a new customer might solve any issues you have with an order and it actually might help to make the customer feel like he is dealing with a very professional business he can trust.
© 2006 – Webhostingresourcekit.com
Starter Ideas On How To Get Your First Customers
One of the most difficult aspects of running a new hosting company is getting your first customers when you have not much exposure in regards to advertising and traffic on your website. It is like the Chicken and the Egg thing. The more customers you have the more new ones will sign up based on word of mouth advertising. But you need customers first before this will work out in your favor. The methods described below could be a great starting point for any new web and existing web host trying to get more clients.
Activity in Forums
One of the best ways to attract customers is by posting messages in forums on just about any subject. No, do not post your URL in messages itself. Find out if you are allowed to put URLs into your profile and signature. Then put your business URL and one line of text about your company into your signature line and start posting meaningful and good messages. Build up a good reputation. Do not promote your business by talking about it unless specifically being asked about it. If you post good messages with good content and advice, people will associate that with your business. Now you have free advertising to a large forums audience. Be active. Make yourself post ten messages or new topics every day. Pick topics that already have many responses. If done right you will see traffic to your website start to come in. Important: Make sure that your messages are really helpful and insightful. Again do not post junk as this will reflect badly on you and your company in the end. If you are persistent doing this across multiple forums you will see an increase in traffic and soon customers start to sign up.
Be a Sponsor
Sponsoring web sites is another great method to get the name out. Find a very active and well-known site that is on a free web hosting platform like Geocities, AOL, Comcast, etc and offer them to trade web hosting for promotion of your site in return. You can also do this on a local level by hosting a website for your kid’s sports team, a neighbor’s kid soccer team, or a charity you are involved with. Local customers are often willing to pay a little more for web hosting and often require less need for tech support.
Friends and Family
And finally you can consider your friends and family as part of getting your business off the ground. Give away free web hosting to them and ask them to mention your services to their friends and extended family. Not everyone needs web hosting, but sometimes having somebody in the industry they trust, can trigger the need to suddenly wanting a website.
These 3 steps of how to get new customers are affordable and if done right very effective. Make sure you treat your first customers to the best service possible. These clients are the foundation of your business. A solid foundation is the key to success in the hosting industry.
Book: The Web Hosting Manager
A new book about starting a web hosting business has become available. "The Web Hosting Manager" is a step by step guide about how to start a web hosting business.
See it at Amazon.com: The Web Hosting Manager
"The Web Hosting Manager" is the one-stop business guide when starting a new web hosting business. This book is also targeted at existing web hosting businesses that are lacking customers and need to pick up "steam". Jumpstarting a new or existing web hosting business with the knowledge from this book is easy. This non-technical book guides the reader from the very beginning of starting a web hosting business to implementing highly sophisticated marketing strategies. This book is invaluable for the beginner and the pro.
- Paperback: 176 pages
- Publisher: Lulu Press (October, 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN: 1411653149
The Future for the smaller web hosts
What will the future of web hosting look like? At the moment it looks like the growth for Internet business is still very consistent and the overall future looks bright. More business will go online if terrorists continue to pose a thread when being in public places. Climate changes and events might also be a mitigating factor when it comes to online growth. The future for web hosting businesses should be a bright one, right?! But how bright is the future looking for the average web host out there?
About a year ago consolidation on the market was a hot topic and I think it still is. Especially the smaller web hosting businesses will see pressure in regards to keeping prices high enough to make a fair living and to be able to invest for future growth at the same time. Pressure will also come if another large market player enters the market or would expand its efforts to get more business. As an example – search engine providers are already looking for more ways to diversify business. Yahoo made the step into web hosting already – others like Google.com might follow. Every once in a while rumors already have it that Google’s debut as a web hosting provider is not that far out. So far this has not proven to be true, but who knows. If Google follows "1&1" business model and arrives with a fully automated hosting platform the smaller market players would likely feel the heat. Google is a trusted brand name with great products. A web hosting offer from Google for a low price might just what many folks would be waiting for. eBay could also be a potential candidate for this kind of service. A large established user base with a large connection to web hosting in a certain – who knows.
Automation and self-service options could also be a problem for the smallest of the smaller web hosts. If larger investments into new technology are needed the cash-strapped smaller web hosts will eventually hit a show stopping event and have to decide to either risk not following the market or to eventually sell their business to somebody with enough cash.
Overall smaller web hosting business should carve out a niche market and serve that market with full force to make sure that they do not open a back door to failure. If serving a niche market is not an option for a web host he should consider aggressive growth to be needed to stay competitive in the long run. Market consolidation might happen upon us faster than expected. "Expect to be eaten ….!"