''One of the major problem areas we set out to correct was one of value,'' says Ned Semonite, vice president of marketing for PictureTel, a videoconferencing equipment manufacturer. ''Companies that bought the devices felt they weren't being used enough. They used big monitors, and it was obvious when they weren't being used because they were these big dark things sitting in the corner.''
As a result, PictureTel has designed a system based on a PC architecture that can do more than just show pictures.
''It can be used as a meeting room or collaboration tool,'' says Semonite.
The device can also be used as a stand-alone conference room PC to support Web browsing, project planning, presentations or sales forecasting when not in use in a videoconference.
One of the other major drawbacks to videoconferencing was in sharing information.
''The technology was showing faces and hearing what they had to say, but getting information from one location to another in a form where people could see it proved problematic,'' says Semonite.
Now there is the capability to transmit information from whatever electronic format it's in -- such as a Word document or a PowerPoint presentation -- and make it possible for people on the other end to see it at a high resolution. You plug your laptop into a small device and press one button to send data through.
You can view data either separately on another monitor or in a way similar to picture-in-picture technology on your television, with the people in a smaller frame on the same screen. Everything is viewed in real time. Web browsing is also possible, so that two groups of people at different sites can see a Web-based presentation or view Web pages.
''These systems save hours in your day,'' says Semonite. ''We surveyed our users, and 70 percent said the system paid for itself within six months and 90 percent within a year.'' How to reach: www.picturetel.com
The ability to connect anyone -- and anything -- at all times is where the real potential lies. Information can freely flow from devices to the people who use or maintain them. These devices, whether a copy machine, air conditioner or other mechanical unit, can all be integrated into a larger information system.
''Our view is that these devices contain a lot of valuable information on customers,'' says John Canosa, chief scientist at Questra, a software company that integrates the Internet into everyday devices. ''Companies are always looking at ways they can get closer to the customer. These devices are right now sitting in a customer's space, and they use them every day.''
Canosa says that by taking the basic information from a copier, for example, a vendor can provide better service. Information on how often it's used, what it's used for and when it breaks down is all sitting there untapped.
''Until now, there really hasn't been an easy way to extract this information and get it into your systems to make use of it,'' says Canosa.
Some other examples:
* Manufacturing. Computer chip makers have hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in their manufacturing equipment. When the equipment isn't working, the chip makers aren't making money.
By tying the device to the machine's manufacturer via the Internet, its performance can be monitored. As problems and degradation of performance become evident, preventive maintenance can be done before the device fails.
* Service. Every office building probably has a rooftop air conditioner. If one should develop an oil leak in the compressor, the unit will eventually stop working. And if this happens in the middle of summer, your employees will probably stop working, too.
By tying the air conditioner into a monitoring system that is connected to the Internet, the service company can detect problems in advance and possibly even perform a remote diagnostic test so it can have the right parts on hand before ever going up on the roof.
''I personally believe the device revolution will actually dwarf the impact the Internet has had on the access to information,'' says Canosa. ''There will be more timely and more accurate information that will be collected and placed into a monitoring system. This is going to change how some organizations do business.''
This technology isn't years away, either. It's here right now. Wal-Mart has had its point-of-sale devices tied into its management system for years. FedEx spent tens of millions of dollars on its package tracking system.
''They had to build the entire system, and they were successful, but they had to spend large sums of money to do it,'' says Canosa. ''The Internet is bringing this to the masses. The infrastructure is already there. They don't have to spend millions to do it.''
New business software, whether it's customer relationship management software or something else, understands the language of the Web, which enables businesses to make the most out of this new data stream.
''If this is done right, you won't even see the computer,'' says Canosa. ''You're already interacting with computers every day that you don't know are there.''
On a basic level, it might mean you never run out of toner for your copier -- or even have to order any. You might make a deal with the vendor, who would then monitor your toner supplies via the device. When the supply runs low, a refill would be automatically ordered.
''This can provide a tremendous competitive advantage for manufacturers of these devices,'' says Canosa. ''Commoditization is ongoing in a lot of products and there are huge margin pressures, making it very difficult to differentiate your products. What the difference will be is that a company will be able to offer service and guarantee a 100 percent up-time.''
Vendors will transform from selling products to selling products plus services.
''We are in the genesis of the revolution,'' says Canosa. ''What we're seeing is affecting the ways people run businesses. The changes that are just starting will be profound.'' How to reach: www.questra.com
Todd Shryock (firstname.lastname@example.org) is SBN Magazine's special reports editor.
How can your company walk the talk of being customer-focused? Here's a recommended course of action:
1. Involve your customers in defining programs and their ideal experience.
2. Understand your customers' definition of a job well done. Understand what they consider unacceptable, a must-do, a nice-to-do and what would wow them. Do this before you roll out a CRM program or an e-commerce site.
3. Keep the customer involved throughout the ''define and design'' stage. This will help you hone the program and work out the kinks in a preventive way, before the program or service is introduced.
4. Remember that customers at different stages of their relationship with you should be treated differently. Communication with your customers is like dating: They find you or you find them. The first interaction you have with them -- e-mail, in person, on the Web, or over the phone -- is pivotal.
5. Learn from others. Great information on best practices for e-mail marketing, customer loyalty, Web site development and CRM is readily available from books, magazines, conferences and on the Web.
6. Focus on continuous improvement. Track what is working and what isn't with your customers. Understand their priorities and identify three things you can do that would most dramatically improve your customers' satisfaction, repurchase habits and loyalty (and your bottom line). Make incremental and regular changes. Show customers you are listening and learning from them.
CRM initiatives can affect all aspects of provider behavior and related customer behavior. Costs can be reduced and revenue increased. If your efforts can influence even a single behavior or customer-related metric, the payback can be enormous.
Your investments in CRM initiatives will result in exponential returns, provided they are executed well.