Self Employed Web

Smart Connections

Posted on Friday, July 4th, 2003 by

Smart Connections
SPECIAL REPORT


Illustration by Campbell Laird

Staying in touch with your customers, vendors and employees is getting easier—especially via the Web, wireless devices and your trusty cell phone.

A few years ago, Mike Schapansky was drowning in paperwork.
The owner of Pure-Chem Inc., a swimming pool treatment business in Austin, Texas, was spending too much time looking up client’s records. When customers phoned the office with a question about their last service or past treatment records, Schapansky would flip through 15 binders to find the answer. “The worst part was that it tied up our phone lines,” Schapansky says. With only two office lines, that meant potential customers were getting a busy signal, and nothing drives a small-business owner off the deep end faster than lost sales.

It’s a much different story at the Pure-Chem offices today. That’s because Schapansky’s business is now connected. Pure-Chem has outfitted its three route drivers with Palm handheld computers. The handhelds have been programmed with an application that tells the drivers their work orders for the day and arranges the routes in the most efficient order. When a serviceman arrives at a customer’s house, the software gives him any special instructions—such as watching out for the dog in the yard—and provides him with the pool’s previous readings. After completing his work, he enters the latest readings and service record into the handheld, essentially completing the paperwork on the spot. At the end of the day, the records are uploaded from the Palm into the company’s desktop computer and become part of the master record.

“Now I can search any of the records from the past three years in a matter of seconds,” Schapansky says. Not only that, he keeps a copy of the records on his Kyocera 7135 smartphone. When he gets a customer call while on the road, he can look up the service records and answer questions on the spot.
Is it saving him money? Probably not directly, he admits. The Palms cost $300 each and the Kyocera 7135 retails for around $650. But Schapansky is convinced he’s not missing as many calls, and his level of customer service has improved. “The bottom line is that it has made my life easier, and my customers are more satisfied because I can answer their questions faster and in much greater detail,” he says.
Whether it’s a wireless device, Web-based work environment or state-of-the-art phone system, small businesses are beginning to use innovative technologies to stay connected to customers, vendors and each other.

 

Net Extensions

Small businesses are increasingly using the Internet to develop a sense of community with customers. Such communities can offer tips on installing or servicing products and can serve as bulletin boards for customers to share their experiences.


Illustration by Bryan Leister

Landell Flute Company of Richmond, Vt., for instance, wants to hit a high note with its customers by offering a customer Web site. The site not only highlights the firm’s services as a manufacturer of custom flutes, it also provides links to information on the musicians playing Landell’s instruments. The site (www.flutes.org) is a work in progress. The goal, says Jonathon Landell, is to create an online community where flutists can share their knowledge, highlight upcoming performances and sell tapes or CDs.

“We serve a relatively small community, but it’s a group that wants to be informed and connected,” Landell says. The company’s flutes start at about $9,000 and can range as high as $32,000.

Entrepreneurs also are reaching out to other businesses through extranets—an Internet site that’s restricted to you and the people you do business with. You decide who has access and what information is available to users.

The appeal? According to a recent survey, the average small business deals with 35 to 45 vendors and suppliers three or four times a month. Then, there are the countless interactions with customers and business partners. Extranets allow you to share information with them (at a cost that’s considerably less than using faxes, email and the telephone), collaborate on projects and sell products and services to other businesses.

“There are a number of niches where extranets have become well established—especially in architecture, engineering, property management and the construction business,” says Dr. Joel N. Orr, founder of Exranet News (www. extranetnews.com). These are activities that involve collaboration, as well as the sharing of documents, blueprints and photos.

“Since extranets are Web-based, users can access them from anywhere—no matter what type of computer they have,” Orr says. Other business sectors that are turning to extranets include manufacturers (which use them to manage supply-chain requirements) and accounting firms. Today, more than 550 vendors offer extranet software (for building your own site) or Web-based extranet hosting services (for piggybacking on their technology). Some vendors offer both approaches. For instance, Microsoft (www.microsoft.com) offers Sharepoint Team Services, which you can either buy as a software package for about $170 or obtain as a subscription service through Web Presence Providers (WPPs) for less than $40 a month. Software giants SAP (www.sap.com) and Siebel (www. siebel.com) take similar approaches.

 

Extension, Please?

“Thank you for calling the offices of TJ Haygood and Associates,” the friendly automated greeting on the line states. “If you know your party’s extension, please dial it now. If you need the operator, please press 0 and have a wonderful day.”

It’s a familiar automated greeting you would likely have to navigate through at any mid size or large company. But this isn’t a large company. In fact, TJ Haygood is one-woman employment and career-consulting firm operated by Therral J. Haygood in Rocklin, Calif. After pressing 0 to speak to the operator, TJ is likely to pick up the line and answer your call.

“My cell phone is my business line,” Haywood says. “So I use this service to put a professional front on the business, and forward the calls to my cell phone.”

The service she refers to is provided by GotVMail Communications (www.gotvmail.com). The company’s services can turn a simple cell phone into a communications system on steroids—with toll-free numbers, custom greetings, voicemail, extension numbers and live call forwarding.

The costs vary. GotVMail offers a package, which includes a toll-free number, starting at $10 a month. Additional charges of 4.9 cents a minute are levied for calls routed from the toll-free number. Other providers offer flat rates of about $60 to $70 a month, but many experts believe that the per-minute charge works better for small business.

 

Traveling Toll-free

It used to be that you knew you were dealing with a big company when it had its own 1-800 number. These days, even the kid down the street can be selling comic books across the country through a toll-free line.

Call the toll-free number for BMD Travel and Tours and you’ll hear an automated greeting that gives you choices aimed at serving you faster and better. When you press a button, you’ll probably be patched through to the cell phone of Michelle Dalco of Hurst, Texas. Dalco is the part-time owner and operator of BMD Travel (she has another full-time job). Through the wonders of wireless, she’s able to operate her company as if it were five times its size. Dalco employs seven other agents nationwide; they also have similar work arrangements.

When a customer phones, Dalco’s system is programmed to route the call to an agent—depending on his or her availability and the time of day. Which means that this phone wizard can operate her agency from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. (EST) without a real office.

“It’s the perfect scenario for my agents and me,” Dalco says. “I need to show my customers a single, professional face, but what happens after they call that toll-free line is amazing.
Of course, there is a price to be paid. Dalco says phone bills are the single largest cost she bears—about 60 percent of total expenses. In her home office, she keeps three land lines, including one for a fax machine, which cost about $150 a month. Her hard-working cell phone racks up another $150 a month in charges.

Still, she doesn’t regret the costs. “When you consider what it’s allowed me to do with this business, it really is minimal,” she says.


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