An evolutionist's approach to leveraging the World Wide Web
Q. I've got a company Web site that lists our products and services and contact information but beyond that, we don't use the Internet as part of our day-to-day operations. Is there a way to leverage the power of the Internet without spending a pile of cash?
A. The beauty of the Internet is that we can all be on a shared network very easily. That connection can provide you with access to information and systems that were unthinkable just a few years ago. By using a PC connected to the Internet and a Web browser, you can access complex systems without having to deal with any of the ownership costs, such as maintenance. Given the recent weather-related disasters, having access to a system that is hosted remotely also means you don't have to worry about data loss in the event of an evacuation or disaster.
To begin, you can provide information on your site for your customers very cost effectively. By using a hosted Web service, you can gain a presence quickly and easily, while not having to invest in an IT department. Start simple by providing relevant information that your customer might normally have to speak with you to get. From there you can grow into other systems or services that fit your customer's needs. Examples of early content might include: new customer FAQs--what common questions does your customer typically ask?; steps to getting the right equipment; and an online form customers can fill out with contact information so you can contact them (calls, e-mails, newsletters, etc.).
As your needs and familiarity grow, moving into a hosted application means you are sharing the cost of using a system with others. You could consider it a co-op funded approach. Use what you need, and only pay for that level of service. When a new version of an application becomes available, it is likely you can access it right away. You don't need to fund IT resources, you are a user of the application. Nothing to install, you are just using someone else's system. Examples of these hosted applications include online catalog and true e-commerce capability that allows a customer to place an order via credit card with you. You don't have to begin with everything, it can be an evolution of information and service.
Dave Rolston is vice president of e-business for Medline Industries. Reach him at (847) 643-4779 or email@example.com.