Ten years ago, the Internet was only a pipe dream for the average consumer. It was used mainly by the government and universities who were sharing information and data.

Usage has increased exponentially with there now being more e-mails sent electronically in a month than first class letters delivered by the U.S. Postal Service.

Here are five ways the Internet will change the way that contractors do business in the future.

1. The computer will become as cheap or cheaper than a standard TV set.

Computer prices are getting lower and lower, which means that in a few years the cost of a computer to do basic things like access the Internet and send and receive e-mail will cost what the average TV set does today.

More people will have access to a wide range of information. Much of the information will be free.

2. The speed at which you access the Internet will increase.

Access to the Internet over standard telephone lines with a modem is slow. People have to wait minutes to get to or download information. We now see high-speed phone lines being installed throughout the country.

Older high-speed technology uses the ISDN (integrated subscriber digital network), which is available in most areas of the United States. These lines are about three times faster than standard phone line modems. Now digital subscriber lines (DSLs) are starting to become available. With DSLs, you choose the speed you want (up to 200 times faster than standard phone line access).

Right now the prices are such that these phone lines are being used mainly by businesses. However, the prices will go down as the availability and competition increases, and they become more cost effective for consumers at home.

From a contractor’s perspective, you will be able to search for information from manufacturers more quickly than you could make a telephone call. This saves you time and money.

3. The Internet gives your customer access to a lot of information when they want it.

More customers get on-line every month. They have found a new tool to search for information, communicate with others, and find answers to their questions and problems.

They search for answers to their home repairs and maintenance problems and are looking for companies who can help them. They want to make an intelligent choice. If your company is not there, your competition will be.

In addition, customers want the information on their time. This means if they log on at 10 p.m. or 5 a.m., they can access the information they need.

Your Web site is like a two-way Yellow Pages ad. However, on your Web site you can tell your story in as much detail as you want, for a much lower cost.

Many salespeople are finding that when they go to potential customers’ homes, some customers have already done their homework. They may have printed out information from the Web sites of the major manufacturers, your company, your competition, or the U.S. government.

This customer may be totally confused and will probably have a lot of questions. It is up to the salesperson to provide those answers to win the order.

4. Your Web site address will become as important as your telephone number.

People will be able to contact you through the Internet. You’ll have to break through the clutter by putting your website address on your company’s trucks, invoices, business cards, stationery, and anywhere else you put your telephone number.

5. Innovative groups are already using the Internet to help contractors.

Some groups are already using the Internet to help share business ideas, information, and training. For example, Area51hvac.com has a live chat session each Wednesday evening for contractors who want to log on, write questions to experts, and get a reply in writing. Just log onto Groom Lake on Wednesday evening, 8 p.m. EST, and start typing. It’s free for anyone who wants to participate.

(News contractor relations editor John R. Hall hosted the Nov. 24 session.)

Contractors also have access to live, totally interactive two-way training and communications over the Internet through American Contractors Exchange in Norcross, GA (www.acecon tractor.com).

This is a membership group of contractors who have weekly training in their shops for technicians and field personnel, as well as monthly networking groups for owners, dispatchers, service managers, salespeople, and bookkeepers. They share ideas that help in business as well as learn information that will help in the field.

Summing up

Doing business in the Internet age is different. Customers have access to much more information when they want it.

As a result, they are asking more questions and are becoming much more demanding. You have to satisfy their demands to win and keep their business.

So, what does this mean for contractors?

Most every contractor has a fax machine. We can’t imagine doing business without one. Within the next few years, most every contractor will have — and use — an e-mail address and website. It will become part of the normal method of communicating with employees, customers, and suppliers.