What is it? The Internet and e-commerce. Although the Internet has changed the way people conduct business, perhaps it has never lived up to its expectations.
The News decided to ask its Contractor Consultants for their opinions on how the Internet has affected their businesses. Here are the questions:
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET“Having been in the hvac business since the 70s, I’ve seen a lot of opportunities come our way to facilitate the way we do business,” said Ann Kahn, Kahn Mechanical Contractors (Dallas, TX). “The Internet rates right up there with the best of them.
“We use it in practically every aspect of our daily operations, from checking equipment prices and availability, to buying products and services, to paging service orders to technicians, and to marketing ourselves through our website.
“Recently, when we ran a couple of employment ads in a local newspaper, we were surprised at the number of people who responded by e-mail through our website. Simply put, the Internet has become a tool we rely on heavily.”
Steve Miles of Jerry Kelly Heating & Air Conditioning (St. Charles, MO) said Internet usage is picking up steam. “It’s playing a growing role. More customers expect a Web presence, and more are becoming comfortable with the thought of using it for everyday tasks,” he said.
Tom Lawson, Advanced Air Conditioning & Heating, Inc. (Bossier City, LA) does not rely heavily on his website — yet. “We use the Internet to order business equipment, file warranty claims, order extended warranties, and to send and receive e-mail.”
“At present, the Internet provides a key communication element in our business,” said Charlie Klapperich, Western Building Services, Inc./Comfort Systems USA (Denver, CO). “Being a member of a national company, communication between sister companies and corporate functions is more extensive and timely through the use of the Internet.”
Scott Getzchman, Getzschman Heating & Sheet Metal/Service Experts (Fremont, NE), is also a contractor who is member of a larger national company (Lennox). “As a Lennox dealer we use the Internet extensively,” he said. “DAVE NET allows us to process all warranties, and the process speed has increased dramatically. You can process orders. You can check on the status of an order. It also allows us to be informed on all equipment and parts changes.
“We can also process our marketing through this site. We also have our own website, which allows us to inform customers of specials. They can also visit with us if need be.”
“As part of a larger team of companies, we have the luxury of multiple websites and a department of IS people to handle the accounts,” stated Dave Dombrowski of Metro Services/ARS-ServiceMaster (Raleigh, NC).
Mary Marble, J.A. Marble Co (Dearborn, MI), said her company uses the Internet primarily as a communications tool. “Currently we use the Internet to look up information on companies,” she noted. “We e-mail suppliers when we have questions that do not need an immediate response, or if we are working on a design-build job and want to use a particular manufacturer, we can obtain information, including drawings, cut sheets, etc.”
DO YOU HAVE A WEBSITE?Tom DiPietro of Climate Design Systems, Inc./Service Experts (Haverhill, MA) said his company has several specific uses for its website. “We run monthly website specials, bringing the customer back to the site frequently, particularly in the residential sector,” he said. “This sector also signs up service customers with us, or at least gets the customer to call for additional information. In the commercial sector, we state the type of products we use, as well as current and past projects we have done.”
“Our website provides a basic Internet presence where customers can get contact and system information,” said Miles. “This includes online scheduling of maintenance agreements for the convenience of our agreement customers.”
Kahn said, “We monitor and update it in-house, although time constraints have severely limited our intentions. You might say it is still ‘under construction,’ although it is fairly comprehensive in scope right now.”
Another contractor describing his website as “under construction” is Hank Bloom, Environ-mental Conditioning Systems (Mentor, OH). “We monitor it every day. Our customers send info and ask for responses for our training, social events, etc.”
“We do have a website, and it needs to be updated,” Marble said. “We had selected a company to host and update our website on a quarterly basis. After our site was up and running, they went out of business.
“We now have another company hosting our site but need to get pricing from them on updating our site. When we get really into the website updates, I want the updates to be similar to our monthly marketing.”
Roger Grochmal, Atlas Air/ ClimateCare (Mississauga, ON, Canada), said, “We do have our own website, but we use it only as a communication tool with our existing customers and not as a tool to obtain new business. We have a monthly special and get some feedback from customers on service issues.”
THE IMPACT OF E-COMMERCE“Our website gives company information,” said Marble, “but in the future I see advertising monthly specials that can only be given if they have booked a call through the Internet or visited our site to see what the ‘special’ is.
“I would like to have an ‘Ask Us’ section, where customers can ask management or service techs questions. Anything I can do to make it easier for my customer to deal with us is what I want to do.”
“The plan is for our site to mature gradually,” said Miles. “We have our domain, our website, and are developing more sophistication as time and resources permit.
“As a presence on the Internet, I consider it advertising. However, we are not currently using its full potential.”
“Overall, the capability and features of the Net are not utilized very well,” said Klapperich. “We are being opportunistic with its use and have not seen much creativity with regard to its potential benefits.
“As to the direct impact on our business, I would say it is positive, but there is no way to measure that effect. Most of what we do is also done by our competitors, so we do not really obtain any additional market advantage. If we didn’t use the Net, it would actually hurt us.”
“The Internet impact is just beginning to touch our industry,” said Aaron York, Aaron York’s Quality A/C (Indianapolis, IN). “It appears to me that the greatest impact will be felt within the next five years. The way we are doing business is likely to change irreversibly forever.
“Computerization is heavily used in almost all businesses today, but much less so in residences. In homes they are mostly toys and informational as opposed to being practical for business use yet. But we better get ready. It is on our doorstep.”
“I think it is important that a company has a website,” said Marble. “You need to let your customers and prospects know you are on the cutting edge. Just as your technicians have the latest training in the field, your management staff has to be in the 21st century!”
“We are using the Internet in many other ways,” said Grochmal. “We are now hooked up with staff offsite who can connect into our server over the Internet. This is particularly useful for telemarketers who sell service contracts and can then schedule a service call while they have the customer on the phone in the evening.
“We also have a remote branch communicating over the Internet. We are seeing a lot more activity on the purchasing side with most of our suppliers interfacing with us over the Internet for purchasing, quotes, inventory updates and warranty administration, among other things. Direct payment is not that far away. We can also perform some banking functions over the Internet.”
“The Internet is an essential marketing tool in our business,” DiPietro said. “Competitors are there, and we have to compete in the same strategic forum — as we did with the Yellow Pages in the past.”