Todd Shryock

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:44

One system fits all

Technology has created a world in which you are always in touch with the office. Cell phones, voice mail, e-mail, pagers, smart phones and PDAs all keep you up to date with what’s happening while you’re away.

But while all these chips and circuits have made your life simpler, they have also made it more complex.

The problem is that messaging comes in so many different forms, over so many different systems. Workers use landlines and wireless phones to receive calls and check voice mail. They must go to a fax machine for faxes. E-mail comes to their computer desktop, and often workers must go online to check mail.

Messages in different formats often turn out to be redundant. A customer couldn’t reach somebody on the phone, so he paged. When the page wasn’t answered, he e-mailed and/or faxed. The business user must go to different systems to find the messages.

Multitudes of passwords, user codes and product-specific instructions slow the retrieval of information to a crawl. Checking messages and returning calls shouldn’t require two computer consultants and an electrical engineer. That is the idea behind InternetPBX from COM2001.com.

“We developed a phone system that takes advantage of the full power of Microsoft NT,” says David Perez, president and CEO of COM2001.com. “It integrates traditional voice, unified messaging, e-mail and fax. It utilizes Microsoft Outlook and Explorer, along with a personal assistant with voice recognition features.

“For the small business guy who is away from the office or working from home, he will have every feature there as he would in the office.”

All messaging is handled through the server, so when the system administrator backs up your computer data, he or she is also backing up your voice mail and faxes. The virtual personal assistant, Alexis, can access e-mail, voice mail and faxes; manage calendars; compose and send messages; and even screen your calls. Users can set single number “find-me, follow me” service.

Users gain real-time call control and screening on their computer screens. An integrated Outlook database provides information on identified callers. A single mouse click lets users place, accept or transfer calls. Users can arrange four-way conference calls and set up high quality digital conference bridges for team meetings.

The toolbar will display all the participants and their contact information from Outlook.

The same interface delivers unified messaging to users of InternetPBX. Outlook captures and displays all voice mail, e-mail, paging and fax mail grouped together and available over the same system. Any message can be played, saved or attached to other messages for forwarding.

The profile of the company that would benefit the most from the InternetPBX is one with 10 to 100 employees and a basic need for mobility. This could be sales people, medical staff, accountants or attorneys, for instance.

“Anyone who needs to constantly be in touch with the office could benefit,” says Perez. “If all you have are clerks, then it probably won’t work well. But if you fit the profile, it costs 1/10th the price of a Lucent system with the same features.”

A system optimized for 10 people would cost about $300 a month with all the options. The servers come prebuilt from Dell.

How to reach: COM2001.com, www.com2001.com

Todd Shryock (tshryock@sbnnet.com) is SBN’s special reports editor.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:44

Mobile e-commerce

You’re on your way to a sales meeting when your phone beeps. You have an urgent e-mail from the office, your favorite stock is at a record high and you were just outbid in an online auction for a collectible Swiss watch.

You sell the stock and up your bid, all using only your phone.

Far-fetched? Hardly. It’s all possible now, and you’ll being seeing more of it. The only question is how many devices and which applications will stick, and which will not.

If you’re trying to determine which wireless weapon to add to your road warrior armory, you might want to consider a digital phone. A recent report by Mark Zohar of Forrester Research predicts that digital wireless phones will be the big winners of the mobile device race because:

Users reject mutant devices. Users will choose one device that is optimized for the primary function of making phone calls but also offers new data features.

Alternate devices are capped. Mobile consumers won’t carry around a utility pack of multiple devices. Other devices, such as wireless PDAs and video terminals that don’t provide the mobility or core voice function that mobile consumers demand, will remain niche products.

The information provided by these devices will also be simple in nature, and get to the point quickly. Zohar says users will demand devices that:

Provide timely information. Mobile consumers will want to receive customized information that is timely and time-sensitive. Consumers will not spend the time to read general news on their phones when they can do that at the office.

Enable simple transactions. Consumers won’t use their phones to conduct complex and time-consuming transactions like ordering a new computer or researching products. Rather, they will focus on simple transactions that are easily actionable.

Are location relevant. By 2001, wireless carriers will implement Automatic Location Identification technologies, including GPS solutions from SnapTrack and SiRF. Content providers such as MapQuest will capitalize on these technologies to provide personal navigational services. With a simple query, smart Yellow Pages will locate the nearest Hilton hotel or Vietnamese restaurant.

Personal information, including credit card numbers, will be pre-entered and stored. Users can choose who they receive alerts from and be notified accordingly. For example, Ticketmaster might alert you when your favorite artist schedules a concert in your area and enable you to purchase tickets with the touch of a button.

You can also expect instant messaging, similar to what online providers AOL and Yahoo! offer on the computer, to move over to phones as well.

This means you’ll have more and more of the features you have on your office computer contained — albeit in a simpler format — on your mobile phone. E-commerce will be in the palm of your hand no matter where you are — airport, sales conference or lunch.

Other predictions by Zohar include:

Billing will become profitable. Customers and merchants seeking simple and secure methods of payment for mobile e-commerce will turn to carriers for the solution. Customers will be able to add their purchases to their wireless bill, and have the carrier act as the billing and collections agent for the merchant.

New safety issues will arise. Israel and Spain already ban the use of cell phones while driving and Japan is in the process of implementing such as law. As mobile Internet services emerge, pressure will mount on U.S. state and federal governments to ban the use of mobile phones in cars. To avoid new legislative action, the wireless industry will roll out voice XML services that will let consumers use voice access to browse Internet content on a hands-free basis.

How to reach: Forrester Research, www.forrester.com

Todd Shryock (tshryock@sbnnet.com) is SBN’s special reports editor.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:44

Caller RIP

In the good old days of market research, it used to take a small army of telephone operators calling hundreds of numbers and a flotilla of survey takers drifting through the local mall to get a good sample.

But no more. Technology, as it has so many times in the past, is rapidly making telephone surveys as outdated as eight-track tapes.

“It has to do with the fact that it’s harder and harder to talk to people on the phone,” says Amy Yoffie, vice president of market research with Research Connections, a firm specializing in Web-based research. “People have answering machines and caller ID, and a lot of people are associating market research with sales calls. Response is going down dramatically.”

As the masses continue adding bricks to their electronic wall to keep out unwanted calls, they are also going online. Companies are inviting customers to fill out surveys via the Web. Retailers are forming virtual focus groups. Marketers are doing more research while spending less.

Companies using the Web get a higher response and higher quality information,” says Yoffie. “People are able to answer the surveys when they want. They can be thoughtful about the questions, as opposed to being interrupted in the middle of dinner.”

Response to telephone surveys can be 40 percent or less. Web surveys fare worse, with only about 20 percent responding to an invitation.

While this should increase as more people go online, consider one important difference: “You don’t have the labor cost of interviewers making phone calls. The cost of doing another increment of interviews is much lower. To do another 100 interviews is a negligible cost compared to the phone.”

So while phone surveys have a better response rate initially, it’s cheaper to do it by Web.

Research firms use a variety of methods to develop a pool of candidates. Some have the general populace fill out their demographic information and invite them to specific surveys for a chance to win cash or other prizes. A company might have an e-mail list of its customers, or a pop-up window can be utilized to entice visitors at a Web site to fill out a survey.

Turnaround time is fairly quick. A survey can be put up overnight, with thousands of invitations sent out simultaneously. A more specific survey, aimed at a narrow demographic group, might take longer — both in designing the survey and finding enough qualified candidates.

Most of the larger online research firms have established pools of people to choose from to invite to take a survey. If a particular population isn’t on file, there are opt-in e-mail lists that can be purchased to meet the need.

So is the phone survey doomed?

“I think there will always be a certain amount of market research done by phone,” says Yoffie. “It may be for hard-to-find populations, like people that don’t have Internet access. I expect within three to five years that the phone survey industry will be cut in half.

“Door-to-door interviews used to be very common, but now are dead. I don’t believe the phone survey will ever be dead, but people that think it will stay at the level it’s at now are kidding themselves.”

How to reach: Research Connections (which has recently been acquired by Talk City), www.researchconnections.com

Todd Shryock (tshryock@sbnnet.com) is SBN’s special reports editor.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:43

Trade rumors

Growing businesses often use barter to help manage their cash flow. Excess inventory or services can be traded on an informal basis for small transactions, or larger deals can be worked with a local trade exchange.

With the local exchange, you typically pay an initiation fee, and upon approval, can list a certain amount of your product. Let’s say you make boxes. You list $5,000 worth of boxes in the exchange, so you have $5,000 credit to use toward other services. The exchange may charge the buyer and/or the seller a transaction fee of 6 to 10 percent.

For a smaller company, this can be a great way to keep the cash flow strong while gaining access to products or services you otherwise would have to pay for. For medium-sized companies, there’s a high-powered form of barter referred to as corporate trading.

“With a trading company, a business sells the excess inventory or discontinued product or merchandise,” says Bill Levitz, managing director of New York-based Argent Trading. “It might be a good product, but last year’s model, or maybe the blue ones didn’t sell.”

The minimum sized deal is $250,000 in wholesale value. There are no fees or expenses.

“The trading company buys the inventory for $250,000, and pays them in asset purchase credits —each one equals a dollar. These credits enable the holder to use them as partial payment for goods and services.”

Possibilities include advertising, hotel, travel, printing and even manufacturing.

“You are buying everything at market price, not list,” says Levitz. “You also have the ability to put in your contract where the product cannot go.”

This protects your territory from becoming flooded with discounted merchandise.

To use corporate trading:

  • Deal with a reputable exchange. Check its references and how long it has been in business.

  • Develop a plan on how you are going to use your credits if you trade.

  • Be aware that if you can get more than 60 to 70 percent of any deal in cash for your inventory, then you shouldn’t trade it. Once it drops below 60 percent, trading becomes an option.

  • You should be getting about three times as many credits as what the real market value is for your product.

  • Know that trading isn’t risk free, but the risk is manageable.

“Know who you are dealing with and make sure you trust them,” says Levitz. “Make sure you meet the owners and talk to them. It’s worth a little extra time to check them out.”

How to reach: Argent Trading, www.argenttrading.com

Todd Shryock (tshryock@sbnnet.com) is SBN’s special reports editor.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:43

Liquid liabilities

The inventory sits in the warehouse collecting dust when it’s supposed to be collecting money for your business. Obviously, it’s not moving the way you had planned, but is it time to cut your losses and liquidate it?

“It’s a question of do you need the cash for something else,” says Alice Magos, an analyst for CCH Inc., a business consulting firm. “If you have a large investment in your inventory and it’s not turning, then the costs are significant. When you have money tied up in inventory that’s not moving, that’s money that isn’t available to do other things, like pay bills.”

A common mistake is waiting too long to unload the inventory. You’ll be desperate and won’t be able to get a good price.

“Keep good records and know at all times what your turnover is, that way you can head off problems before they become monumental,” says Magos.

Try to induce regular customers to buy your inventory with special sales. You can also try to get vendors to take back product that doesn’t sell.

“Before buying something, get an agreement that they will take back obsolete or slow-moving items,” says Magos, who also gives business advice through her “Ask Alice” column on CCH’s Web site. These agreements are usually discounted from the price you originally paid and have handling costs factored in —but it’s still better than having a warehouse full of products that aren’t selling.

When all else fails, it’s time to liquidate. Until recently, the only way to do this was to call a local liquidator and take the best offer. However, with the Internet, sites like Tradeout.com allow you to liquidate the inventory yourself, and display it to a worldwide audience. Users pay a $10 listing fee and a 5 percent commission to the site on a sale, and online logistics help get your product where it needs to go.

By selling on the Web, you are also less likely to be flooding your own distribution area with marked-down product, and less likely to have a competitor grab your products to use against you later.

“You don’t want to dump the stuff in your own area if possible,” says Magos. “The Web opens up a broader base of buyers.”

Regardless of how you liquidate, if you have products that are time sensitive or have high mark-ups, it’s a lot tougher to get rid of the stuff, so plan accordingly.

Diluting your brand name — having products with your name on them sitting in discount bins or appearing in clearance advertisements — can be a problem, but if you need the cash, worry about the brand later.

“If you’re pushed to the wall, don’t worry about down the road,” says Magos.

Decisive action is better. Try to avoid the problem in the first place by having good inventory management and good records. Know what is selling and keep the right stuff in inventory.

Cash flow management is key to not getting into this kind of trouble.

How to reach: Alice Magos, www.toolkit.cch.com

Todd Shryock (tshryock@sbnnet.com) is SBN’s special reports editor.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:41

Instant service

We’ve all been through the process: Buy the product, send in the rebate materials and wait. Sometimes you wait so long you’ve forgotten what the check is for when it finally arrives.

The demand for efficiency and speed by consumers has pushed rebates and other post-sale services to the Internet, and How2.com has found a way to serve both consumers and manufacturers as a sort of go-between.

“Our focus is post-purchase customer care,” says Ken Johnsen, How2.com president. “Retailers can offer a rebate, and with our services, the end-user can check the status and get an e-mail confirmation back. It helps the end-user understand what’s happening.”

Consumers often got so frustrated with the rebate process that they went back to the store, where the rebate was issued out of the cash register to keep them happy, costing the company money.

In the old economy, a manufacturer offered a rebate on a product for a set length of time. A third party collected the rebate offers sent in and waited until the promotion was over. That company then aggregated the checks, got payment from the company offering the rebate, and mailed out rebate payments. This could take six to 12 weeks, especially if someone bought the product early in the promotion.

Now, How2.com works with manufacturers to try to get checks cut every week, dramatically cutting the turnaround time and enhancing the value of the rebate offer. Much of the process has been moved to the Web, including filling out forms and other necessary information. Manufacturers can use this opportunity to sell other products by offering special deals, such as trading the $50 rebate for a $60 gift certificate for additional items.

Small businesses can take advantage of these services as well. How2.com will coordinate a rebate program, taking care of all the applications and processing. The business is charged on a per-rebate basis.

How2.com is also putting manuals for products online to complement its rebate offerings.

“These will not be static manuals,” says Johnsen. “We will be filming video of the products so you can see how to install it. Instead of trying to pick the installation off a piece of paper, we will make the manuals come alive.”

The plan is for consumers to come to the site, fill out and submit rebate forms, then view a multimedia presentation on how to install or program their new product.

How to reach: www.how2.com

Todd Shryock (tshryock@sbnnet.com) is SBN’s special reports editor.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:41

Communication lag

The telecommunications industry is a tough place to do business right now, especially for those companies chasing after the business end-user.

Prices are dropping, contracts lock up customers for years, and business owners know more than ever about capabilities and technology, raising their expectations from their provider.

Customer satisfaction and loyalty depend more than ever on the telecommunications provider’s ability to understand and fulfill the expectations of its business customers.

A recent study of the business customer by Deloitte Consulting reveals the following trends:

  • Though price still appears to be driving initial purchase decisions, and is therefore a key criterion for getting into the game, customer retention and loyalty hinge on service issues, not price.

  • Year-over-year survey findings show that operational responsiveness and customer service continue to be the high priority areas for improvement among respondents of all sizes. This is true even with an extended survey base that includes more small- and medium-sized businesses.

    Providers which invest in, and differentiate themselves on, increased operational responsiveness will set the standard for the industry and increase the proportion of their customers who are likely to remain loyal in the face of competitive threats.

  • By an overwhelming margin, respondents indicate a strong desire to be served by account teams — not alternative support channels such as call centers or e-business channels. However, the significant dissatisfaction with account teams represents a dramatic vulnerability for providers, and an opportunity for their competitors.

  • We have moved into an environment in which business end-users no longer fear the daunting task of switching vendors. At the same time, the boundaries that have sharply defined the competitive landscape in the recent past are blurring in a market being redefined by mergers, acquisitions and joint ventures. Telecommunications competitors are now judged on their own merits, not by the traditional brand identity with which each type of carrier was previously associated.

  • Although true competition (equal reliability, availability, service and price) has only recently begun to emerge in previously protected markets such as local service, customers are sending a clear signal to providers: Improve service or be prepared to lose my business.

  • Given the increasingly competitive marketplace, managing customer expectations and perceptions is nearly as difficult a job as actually provisioning and supporting reliable service.

Todd Shryock (tshryock@sbnnet.com) is SBN’s special reports editor.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:40

Mind your manners

It's always a tough decision. Do you try to spear that cherry tomato on your salad plate and risk shooting it across the table?

If there's a business deal at stake, you're probably better off leaving it alone or learning how to safely corral the little red menace.

It sounds trivial, but the fact of the matter is etiquette faux pas can ruin weeks of negotiations. Your dining etiquette is a direct reflection of you and your organization.

"Etiquette is extremely important, especially if it's with international clients," says Sue Fox, president of Etiquette Survival Inc. and author of "Etiquette for Dummies." "There is tons of business being done over meals. It is a product of our overworked society. What you need to do if the meeting is important is to follow the Boy Scout motto and be prepared."

 

* Find out if your clients or customers have any special food needs. Are they vegetarian? Find out where they are staying and choose a restaurant near their hotel.

 

* Try to frequent a restaurant where you are known so you'll get better service.

 

* Call ahead and make arrangements for a quiet table. If you are the host, give the manager your credit card number in advance, and, if possible, sign for the meal. This makes the whole event run smoother and eliminates any possible bickering over the bill.

 

* Don't talk business until after you are done eating the main entree. The only exception is if your guest brings it up first.

 

* Don't order food that is difficult to eat, such as spaghetti.

 

* Be prepared with small talk about current events or other topics.

 

* Turn off your technology, including cell phones and beepers.

 

* Don't put anything on the table, including sunglasses and keys. The only thing that should be on the table are the plates and the meal. Once the business discussion starts, it's acceptable to bring out papers and other related materials.

 

* Learn more about proper etiquette. Sticking a napkin in your shirt and talking with your mouth full might be accepted at your mother-in-law's, but it's not going to help you win any business deals.

 

* Greet your guess at the door, which means arriving early. Walk in ahead of them, lead them to the table and indicate where everyone should sit. You may want certain people in specific spots, but always give the best seat to the most important client.

 

And here are Fox's five worst mistakes that can be committed during a business meal:

1. Drinking too much alcohol.

2. Having a long cell phone conversation at the table.

3. Showing up late.

4. Spilling something on your client.

5. Dominating the conversation. How to reach: Sue Fox, www.etiquettesurvival.com. Fox's etiquette advice columns are also available at www.officeclick.com.

 

Todd Shryock (tshryock@sbnnet.com) is SBN's special reports editor.

 

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:39

No end

When the technology-heavy NASDAQ took a nosedive earlier this year, everyone thought, “This is it.” The day of reckoning for the high-flying Internet stocks had finally arrived.

Companies lost millions in valuation in just a few days, and some investors saw their double-digit gains vanish. But what was originally seen as a free fall ended up being analogous to an airplane ride: It wasn’t really falling, it was just that sense of weightlessness as the plane goes from a steep climb to a gentler ascent.

The flow of money has slowed, but not stopped. The torrid pace had to decrease some time.

Venture Economics reported that even before the decline in the NASDAQ, the growth in venture financing had slowed. While the total amount of venture financing was at an all-time high at more than $22.5 billion, it was less than an 8 percent increase from the fourth quarter of 1999. For comparison, the gains in the previous quarters were 61 percent, 23 percent and 72 percent.

The Industry Standard reported that the direction of the money has also changed. Money invested in e-commerce dropped 46 percent to $744 million from about $1.4 billion in the fourth quarter of 1999. The amount invested in infrastructure increased 83 percent over the same period, to $1.7 billion from $952 million.

As the money slows, investors will be more selective. An innovative idea alone simply won’t be enough to garner millions in venture capital. While the market may be cooling, spelling an end to the 146 percent one-year return for venture capitalists in 1999, investors are still expecting more historic levels of return — 20 percent.

And there is still plenty of money to be had. An estimated $15 billion remains to be invested from what was raised last year.

“As long as there is cash in the market, the venture capital won’t dry up,” says Jaime Punishill, senior analyst with Forrester Research. “The nation is flush with wealth. Businesses will be able to get funding. There is a massive supply directly related to this mass of wealth.”

As the Internet business concept matures, venture capitalists have a much better idea of what is a viable business plan and what isn’t.

And if every Internet-based business went bankrupt tomorrow, the average person might not see any other effects. Most of them have no operating margin and are posting huge losses. Banks wouldn’t touch them.

“They are all using venture capital money or private capital,” says Punishill. “Most of these guys can’t even qualify for a line of credit. Wall Street may have gotten tepid to dot-coms; venture capitalists have not.” Todd Shryock (tshryock@sbnnet.com) is SBN’s special reports editor.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:39

Mind your manners

It’s always a tough decision. Do you try to spear that cherry tomato on your salad plate and risk shooting it across the table?

If there’s a business deal at stake, you’re probably better off leaving it alone or learning how to safely corral the little red menace.

It sounds trivial, but the fact of the matter is etiquette faux pas can ruin weeks of negotiations. Your dining etiquette is a direct reflection of you and your organization.

“Etiquette is extremely important, especially if it’s with international clients,” says Sue Fox, president of Etiquette Survival Inc. and author of “Etiquette for Dummies.” “There is tons of business being done over meals. It is a product of our overworked society. What you need to do if the meeting is important is to follow the Boy Scout motto and be prepared.”

  • Find out if your clients or customers have any special food needs. Are they vegetarian? Find out where they are staying and choose a restaurant near their hotel.

  • Try to frequent a restaurant where you are known so you’ll get better service.

  • Call ahead and make arrangements for a quiet table. If you are the host, give the manager your credit card number in advance, and, if possible, sign for the meal. This makes the whole event run smoother and eliminates any possible bickering over the bill.

  • Don’t talk business until after you are done eating the main entree. The only exception is if your guest brings it up first.

  • Don’t order food that is difficult to eat, such as spaghetti.

  • Be prepared with small talk about current events or other topics.

  • Turn off your technology, including cell phones and beepers.

  • Don’t put anything on the table, including sunglasses and keys. The only thing that should be on the table are the plates and the meal. Once the business discussion starts, it’s acceptable to bring out papers and other related materials.

  • Learn more about proper etiquette. Sticking a napkin in your shirt and talking with your mouth full might be accepted at your mother-in-law’s, but it’s not going to help you win any business deals.

  • Greet your guess at the door, which means arriving early. Walk in ahead of them, lead them to the table and indicate where everyone should sit. You may want certain people in specific spots, but always give the best seat to the most important client.

And here are Fox’s five worst mistakes that can be committed during a business meal:

1. Drinking too much alcohol.

2. Having a long cell phone conversation at the table.

3. Showing up late.

4. Spilling something on your client.

5. Dominating the conversation.

How to reach: Sue Fox, www.etiquettesurvival.com. Fox’s etiquette advice columns are also available at www.officeclick.com.

Todd Shryock (tshryock@sbnnet.com) is SBN’s special reports editor.