There's a 21st century way to find out if you've earned the business—and the trust—of new builder-customers: whether they're willing to give their “push-to-talk” numbers to you and your staff. The instant, walkie-talkie–like feature from wireless communications provider Nextel, along with similar applications from other companies, has fast become a staple with builders, and dealers also are finding it useful for providing faster service to customers—as well as to know their status as a builder's supplier.

“When a client says ‘Let me give you my Nextel [push-to-talk] number,' they're really saying ‘I'm going to do business with you,'” says Jon Bieselin, vice president at Kleet Lumber, a single-location dealer in Huntington, N.Y. Similarly, Bieselin wants his personnel to take advantage of their Nextel push-to-talk–enabled phones to be as available as possible to customers.

It's a similar story at Alexander Lumber Co., a nearly $200 million dealer in Aurora, Ill., that relies on push-to-talk service from Nextel for real-time communications between outside salespeople, builders, and truck drivers delivering to building sites, according to Joe Weber, vice president and general manager.

Kleet and Alexander are just two of the many companies that underscore the increasing adoption of wireless technology in various forms among lumber and building material dealers. And the efficiencies that result from cutting the cord—whether a phone line or computer wires—are helping dealers work more effectively and serve customers better and faster.

Eight of Curwensville, Pa.–based Lezzer Lumber's 13 locations have wireless local-area networks (LAN), which let users transmit data and access network resources, typically through laptops, without needing to be physically wired to the network. It also uses a wireless network to connect two locations at its corporate campus to each other, says Mike Catalano, information technology manager. “The wireless network saved us from having to dig a trench and bury a cable or go across the road.”

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From file "032_pss" entitled "PStech07.qxd" page 01

Phones that feature push-to-talk capabilities are being embraced by dealers and builders who want to be able to communicate instantly. Nextel's rugged Motorola i355 model, pictured, offers five ways to stay connected. Curtis Lumber Co., a $140 million dealer based in Ballston Spa, N.Y., is using wireless LAN connectivity at multiple locations, as well, including an extensive wireless deployment at its corporate facilities. There's one significant twist compared with typical wireless LANs, however: Curtis also has the network tied into its corporate phone system, so that certain employees can have wireless handsets that let them be reached as extensions on the phone system even when they're not sitting at a desk. “An assistant manager covers a lot of ground here—his or her job is largely a matter of roaming around the property and being accessible,” explains Rich Walker, Curtis' director of information technology. Having wireless-enabled phones gives them precisely that flexibility.

Other key Curtis Lumber employees also benefit significantly from wireless data capabilities: Its loss control director and safety director, for example, can go to a facility and connect quickly via laptop to the resources of the network.

The experiences of these dealers dovetail with results from a survey recently conducted by Nextel to determine the penetration of wireless services among manufacturing companies. Nextel found basic mobile phone services to be ubiquitous among the 76 companies surveyed. Nearly 60 percent—3 in 5—were using push-to-talk services. More than 50 percent of companies had wireless LANs in offices, while 49 percent had wireless LANs in warehouses, according to Darren Koenig, industry director for the manufacturing vertical market at Nextel.

Koenig described future applications in the lumber and building materials space where dealers would benefit from even more advanced wireless technology, such as barcoding and radio frequency identification (RFID), both of which are viewed as technologies that can add strong value to inventory management. “If you're selling lumber and a customer says they want to buy a million linear feet of this type of wood, you'd like to be able to quickly check and see if you have a million linear feet in stock,” he says. —Tom Smith is a freelance writer in Amherst, N.Y.