Many of the businesses my company works with recognize one simple reality: By using technology, they make themselves more attractive partners to both their customers and their vendors. While many companies are looking backward to a universally difficult year — regardless of how businesses fared, we all suffered a grave tragedy — those looking forward are excited about the chance to adapt and grow under a new set of challenges.
By transitioning many business services to the Internet, all participants in a channel stand to realize substantial financial benefits. But it's more than just economics. Service and support have always been an integral part of the value proposition of both manufacturers and distributors in the rental industry. The paradox is that many companies claim this personal touch as a reason to not offer these services over the Internet, regardless of the fact that their customers are asking for it.
The best companies claim this attention to the customer as their number one accomplishment and goal. The companies that are customer oriented are finding win-win solutions today by using technology more effectively. In its November 2001 issue, RER detailed a number of Internet initiatives being undertaken by leading manufacturers and rental companies — online parts catalogs, online product ordering, downloadable product specs and data, fleet tracking, warranty claims, technical service and online training. These are not giant leaps of faith that require large infusions of capital and a complete disruption of day-to-day business. These are affordable solutions with attainable goals. They are the initiatives your most valuable partners should be doing with you, because they represent win-win solutions.
One of the best ways to make yourself a more attractive trading partner is to, very simply, make it easier to do business with you. It costs each of your manufacturers a certain amount of money to sell you something. They have worked this cost into the price of what you buy from them. If you can make yourself a less-costly customer, you can reasonably negotiate with them for better terms. It's a lot less capital intensive for you to put in place a permanent technology solution than to finance large volume purchases in order to save on price. You are better able to manage your cash flow, and your manufacturer has reduced their operating costs. This is a win-win solution.
For example, in the coming months, Rental Service Corp. will be sending and receiving all purchase orders and invoices with their biggest suppliers over the Internet. The cost is low for all participants, and almost as importantly, creates few, if any, technical headaches. All participants will benefit from reduced operating costs, fewer errors and a stronger relationship.
What must be understood is that solutions exist that are both affordable, executable, and perfectly within the reach of the small and medium-sized rental company. You don't have to be a heavily capitalized global conglomerate with an IT staff the size of a football team to succeed in this new business climate. Be it in parts, product support, customer service, or order processing, many opportunities exist for win-win technology solutions that can quickly bring value to all participants in the channel.
In future columns, I'll discuss more specific examples. But for any project to succeed, it needs to meet some very basic criteria. These are basic benchmarks against which all projects, not just technology projects, should be measured, and they warrant constant review:
Communicate: It boggles the mind to think of what could be achieved if we only communicated more effectively with our trading partners. Take advantage of the opportunity to talk with your manufacturers at the ARA show this year. Find out what they're doing, what they're thinking about doing, or why they're not doing anything. When you get back from New Orleans, invite your customers in for a brainstorming session to generate ideas about how you can become more valuable to them.
Get help: There are people and companies that know more about technologies than you or your people do. Find them and get their help. If you don't find an experienced partner, you can greatly reduce your costs and your implementation time. This also allows you to focus on your core business, rather than something that's outside your domain of expertise.
Be realistic: It's much easier to set realistic goals if the scope of the project is manageable. By starting with a pilot group, you are more able to communicate about the mutual benefits, and this can teach valuable lessons. Then, the lessons can be efficiently extended to other partners. Your results with your pilot partners should be the benchmarks against which long-term goals are routinely measured.
Commit: The greatest ideas in the world are worthless unless they are executed upon. As a rental company executive or manager, your responsibility is to rally the forces and get the necessary people behind the project and to support it throughout its lifecycle. Be sure that your partners are committed as well. If all parties stand to gain, they will all be committed to the project, and this is vital. If there's no commitment, the project will most likely fail.
This concept of commitment is probably the most basic, critical factor. One of the reasons that Stone Construction Equipment was able to move forward so quickly with a major Internet initiative incorporating online ordering, product and parts support, and warranty claims is because both the CEO and president were deeply committed to the project. The same is true for RSC. Ellen Steck, vice-president of eBusiness for RSC, has been unwavering in her commitment to find win-win solutions. Her manufacturers recognize this, and are genuinely excited about the opportunities to streamline their business with one of their biggest partners.
These are examples from two of the leading companies in our industry. They have found win-win solutions, and stand apart from competitors because they believe in the value of becoming a better partner. We are in for an exciting year, and it stands to be substantially more exciting if you genuinely look for the win-win, communicate, get help, set realistic goals and commit.
Ethan Zoubek is president and CEO of Conduit Internet Technologies, State College, Pa., a leading provider of affordable, turnkey Internet applications for the construction and industrial tool and equipment market. He can be reached at 800/493-5045, ext. 204, or [email protected].