From file "034_pss" entitled "PERSfeb.qxd" page 01
From file "034_pss" entitled "PERSfeb.qxd" page 01

For many dealers, the buzz surrounding the Internet and e-commerce has been muffled lately by the roar of other new business initiatives, from installed sales to construction services to manufacturing operations. However, many experts believe that online sales and service applications are bound to be a bigger part of pro sales in the future, which is now prompting some progressive thinkers in the construction supply industry to proactively forge stronger bonds with customers by delivering better customer service via the Internet right now.

That's the case at Greenwich, Conn.–based Interstate Lumber and Mill Corp. About six months ago, the company launched its Web site and just weeks later introduced an e-commerce system. “In today's age we knew we had to do something. The industry and the whole world are going that way and we knew we had to get involved,” says Gary Schneidman, CFO and controller for Interstate, which has 150 employees at eight locations in Connecticut and New York. “There was a group of customers who were asking when we were going on the Web. Some of our bigger, more sophisticated customers were requiring it. They really wanted it.”

The company had sufficient resources to develop an e-commerce system in-house, explains Schneidman, but after completing its Web site they opted to look for outside help rather than undertaking another major project. Schneidman researched a couple of systems, then decided on a solution comprised of ECS Commerce and ECS Document Management, both from Enterprise Computer Systems of Greenville, S.C. Interstate was already using ECS Pro, Enterprise's ERP system, and it wanted an e-commerce solution to integrate with it.

Interstate Lumber is beginning to promote its online services more, including a brochure for customer mailings and placement at the sales counters. CFO and controller Gary Schneidman expects many more customers to get onto the system soon. Information Age Even though ECS Commerce is a fully functioning e-commerce system that enables customers to order online, at Interstate the primary emphasis at this stage is on information management. “It allows us to provide better customer service from a back-office point of view, and that is what I was striving for,” Schneidman says. “I wanted to give customers the ability to go on the Internet and get the information they wanted instead of calling to ask us to send this document or fax that document.”

Interstate's normal procedure is to send copies of bills along with a statement at the end of the month. “But we had customers who wanted copies of the bills every week,” Schneidman explains. “Now with this system we can send them at the end of every day, or weekly, monthly, whatever they want.”

Under the system, Interstate customers are assigned a user name and password, and from there can view their outstanding orders, invoices, sales history, and price book. They can download any of this information to an Excel spreadsheet or QuickBooks accounting program and manage the information however they want.

But the most compelling aspect of the new program, according to Schneidman, is the integrated Document Management system. By clicking on a camera icon on a page, customers can view the actual signed signature ticket or other handwritten “original.” The tickets are scanned into the system each morning, so they are available to customers in well under 24 hours.

“People who have signed up for the system say they love it,” Schneidman says. “They love the fact that they can see who signed a ticket. And they say it is making it easier for them to get the information they need.”

The big impact of the system so far is a dramatic drop in customer phone calls, which makes better use of everyone's time, Schneidman says. “The big request was, ‘Do me a favor. Send a copy of my invoices at the end of the week.' All those calls have disappeared from customers who've signed up on the system.”

And the calls should keep dwindling as more users are added everyday. Customers can enroll using an online form, which automatically sends Interstate an e-mail. Schneidman checks the form—“I want to see who is making the requests before I make it totally automated”—then e-mails the customer a user name and password.

In the first few months, more than 100 users had registered for the service, despite very little promotion other than a demonstration during a dinner for some of the dealer's key customers.

Although providing account information was the primary objective to implementing the system, Interstate also has a few customers that are beginning to place orders online, Schneidman says. One of Interstate's biggest customers intends to start soon, meaning others will surely follow. Interstate also has been pleasantly surprised by several large consumer orders placed through the Web site, which Schneidman's not sure he would have gotten otherwise. (The company is about 90 percent pro sales.) When orders come in through the Internet, they still require human review, but that verification takes less time than phone orders.