E-Commerce: Beyond Contracts

RER: What electronic services are attracting the most interest from rental companies these days?

Veneris: I'm glad that the topic of e-commerce has moved from just writing a contract, or reserving a backhoe to the services that can be provided with it. I'm excited to see people offering products that might move the counter to the Internet and provide operating instructions both to the counter staff or for the actual customer that will use the machine. I'm excited to see rental companies' Web pages picking up a picture of a Bobcat and the user clicking on it and getting specs directly off the manufacturers' page, along with operating details of the machine.

If we think of the Internet as an educational tool instead of just a sales and reservation medium, it really can have an impact. We don't actually know the results yet, but we've just started to add video to our Web page, which enables one user to talk about a feature for other users within our group. So all of a sudden, as DSL or broadband gets out there, you provide more education.

Some people see the Internet as an equalizer, yet large, well-capitalized companies can spend a lot more on their Web capabilities.

One of the trends that we've seen since the national chains have gained prominence is that some of our customers have lost ground in the contractor market and they think it's just because of the price. But that's not always the case. What's really happened is that the point of entry has changed. Ten years ago, the point of entry was the Yellow Pages. If a contractor had a job in a community, he might look there. Today when a contract is won, it's usually in the Dodge Report and the major rental companies are out soliciting them and a person won't even look for a rental company before four or five rental companies are talking to them. One of the things that the Internet does is offer an equal footing as a point of entry. It's very hard for a single-store operator to manage an outside sales force. But it can be hard for an end user to tell who is a single operator and who is a national chain just by looking at Web sites. So, there's sort of an equalization, even though larger firms often pay to move to prominent positions on search engines.

What other services will move to the Internet?

A lot of back-office functions. I see a lot of my customers aggressively using online banking. A lot of people are monitoring their credit card purchases daily, not just with their monthly statement. You're going to see commercial functions, whether it be ordering parts, checking on the delivery schedule of a FedEx package, or talking to your bank. I imagine over the next couple of years you're going to see more counter systems actually integrated into the Web so that whoever is running the ticket is not limited to information that's in his computer, but he can be getting manufacturer information or other things to share with the customer.

I have a number of party stores referring their customers to the Web pages to see pictures of what they're trying to describe over the phone. It's so much more effective to show them what the tents will look like when they are set up for an event if they aren't necessarily coming into the store. It can be done with equipment as well. So if you think about giving that online capability to your customers to show them something and not just tell them, it will help you be more effective. I saw the Web site of one of our customers that talks to customers about floor care, or unclogging sewers. I think that they will want functions that allow their customers more access to knowledge.

What about customers, what might they be looking for?

I think online reservations will someday happen, but as a customer service. I believe there are times, other than normal working hours, when contractors would want to check availability. Some studies have shown that large numbers of contractors are connected to the Web and that many use it to make business decisions. Small contractors may be doing that at night, they may not be doing it on the job site. So I think customer accessibility is occurring, we just need to design the products that will draw them to our Web sites.

For larger contractors, to see what they might have on two or three jobs would be an invaluable service. And to bring statements up to date online.

As far as reservations, you see it more on an individual company basis?

It seems there is a real resistance among rental operators to a common online database. That idea has been presented and pretty much rejected. They are afraid it will become a commodity basis if they don't control the presentation. But if it's their Web site, they can control and focus the presentation. I think the Web site should check availability, and let the customer complete the order. The mode now is normally the Web site e-mails you and you check back with the customer. Now there are some advantages to that, because sometimes in equipment rental not all the right questions are being answered. But if he can reserve what he wants and you still call from the reservation to confirm, you could still expand the sale and make sure it really is the right equipment for the application.

So the user can reserve for the list rate but still negotiate on the phone?

Right. He is probably going to call anyhow. But there is a guy who just wants to put this problem to bed at night or at 7 in the morning.

What about on the service end?

A lot of people would like to go to e-mailing invoices or statements or billing, we're investigating the ability to do that. For years people have been faxing invoices, so the question now is can we e-mail? That's why it's important that our counter systems link with the Internet. Because that natural link allows you to take whatever is in front of you and e-mail it to your customers.

What might we see five years from now?

I don't even think we've conceived it yet today. Is it so far away that rental stores offer online seminars on floor care, on lawn and garden, here on Saturday at 10 o'clock, how to pressure wash a deck and preserve it? To have a continual library of training that people can come to your Web site to see. And you can lower your cost of doing business because they can click on the Web to see the instructions instead of you explaining it on the phone.

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