For many, the term "e-business" brings to mind and the Christmas rush of purchasing last-minute presents online. While companies that sell direct to consumers exemplify e-commerce, businesses selling to other businesses - at a much greater magnitude and much more sophisticated level - is referred to as e-business. E-business involves more than an electronic shopping cart. If the Internet is going to help your business, you need to become a part of the information grid that connects you with your suppliers and your customers.

First it was linking people by telephone, and then by fax. Now, the Internet, combined with wireless devices, can instantly connect trading partners and customers 24 hours a day, even when away from the office.

While a Web presence helps improve communication between you and other members of the supply chain, simply having a Web site doesn't guarantee you will instantly become synched with the rest of the supply chain or that potential customers will choose you over the next guy. So, how do you ensure that the Internet does indeed benefit your business?

Taking The Next Step

Due diligence is the first prerequisite for tackling e-business. You need to take a step back and give a long, hard look at where your company can improve. The more thorough and candid this self-assessment, the more your business will benefit. Ask yourself, "Where do things tend to go wrong?" Is it at the beginning of a job because you didn't make the correct estimates? Or, is it at the end because not enough time was spent planning?

Once you identify the areas of your business that need improvement, you can research different objectives that will help fill the gaps. For example, if the beginning of the purchasing cycle creates constant challenges, then you can focus on a solution to simplify the process. It might be helpful to work with an expert to set reasonable goals and objectives. Start small and grow.

You might start with e-mail and later progress to online transactions. The level of e-business each company implements will differ for everyone. It is important that you remain conscientious of all the factors involved, such as costs, processes, etc., as they relate to your company and not your neighbor's.

The most notable advantage e-business processes offer is saved time. And we all know that time equals money. Today, if your projects are paper-based you might spend half your time tracking down purchase orders or invoices. Important documents could be spread throughout dozens of different places - stuffed in a clipboard here and there, or shoved in your truck's dashboard. Imagine the headaches you would save if you could find all these paper-based transactions in one place.

Or, maybe you spend half your time at the fax machine, faxing back and forth between suppliers and manufacturers a dozen times to complete one purchasing cycle. Haven't you ever wished there were a simpler process?

E-business simplifies your job - saving you time and frustration. A central Web-based database allows you to store all your information together, letting you track all your projects in one place. And, with a wireless device, you can have access to all your documents and track all your projects in the palm of your hand 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Think about it, how often are you really sitting behind a desk in an office? More likely, you are rushing from jobsite to jobsite. Wouldn't your job be simplified if you could have every schedule, purchase order, supply order, invoice and schedule in your back pocket?

With all the time you'll save, you will have more time to focus on obtaining new customers. Enhanced operating efficiency will allow you to better manage your current client base.

Automating Your Efforts

A Web presence increases your visibility exponentially. Existing and potential customers can find you with the click of a mouse or by typing in one key word rather than searching through a hundred pages in the Yellow Pages. Not only have you created a more efficient way to market your company by reaching a wider audience at a lower cost, you have also instantly created a tool to improve communication with established and potential customers. And improved communication means better prepared and more informed customers and trading partners.

The first step is to provide an e-mail address for customers to contact you with questions, comments and concerns, so you can respond to your customers' needs and inquiries faster. If a customer leaves you a message at the office, you may not get it until the next day, but if he sends you an e-mail you can receive it instantly on your handheld device. Creating more informed customers reduces the risk of them drawing conclusions, such as forgetting an order when really, there was a change in the delivery date.

With paper-based transactions, there is no audit trail. The supply chain becomes a battle of "he said, she said." Disputes cannot be backed up with a lost piece of paper. But, tracking your documents online or on your wireless devices creates an automatic audit trail.

Another application that e-business automates is purchasing. Say you have a big project coming up, and you need to stock up on supplies. You, as the potential buyer, send a price request electronically. When the seller, a.k.a. the distributor, receives the request, he or she can then respond instantly with a bid. You can then issue your purchase order online and it will automatically be entered into the distributor's system. The delivery to you will be recorded electronically and you will receive a virtual invoice. Paper trails have been reduced, as well as the potential for human error. As a result, you improve time management and create an audit trail.

This leads us to another e-business application - automating interactions between contractors and distributors. Just as the purchase cycle was automated, e-business can help eliminate the guesswork involved in your projects by continuously and instantly updating changes made by members of the supply chain who are working together on a project. Think of the many times you've driven all the way out to a jobsite that wasn't ready. E-business applications give you the ability to track everyone's schedules from a project Web site so you know if there is a delay.

Through a dynamic scheduling program, everyone involved in a project can automatically communicate progress or delays through e-mail, reducing the amount of wasted time and errors implicit in trying to coordinate several parties via phone and fax. And, with a wireless device, you don't have to be sitting at your computer behind a desk.

Creating An
Error-Proof Workforce

As much as we hate to admit it, humans are error-prone. Employees sometimes mistype and even lose order slips, or misjudge requirements and delivery dates. Therefore, wouldn't a system that could reduce human error offer significant value? Automating these processes takes the responsibility out of human hands, which directly benefits your bottom line. And, as with the audit trail of communication, if mistakes do occur, you can easily track where in the purchase cycle they happened.

With paper-based transactions, information is handed off manually multiple times, causing delays and increasing the possibility of errors each time - all while consuming labor that could be focused on more efficient activities. At every step, the order information gets rehandled, creating countless ways for errors to creep in. Electronic links between parties eliminates much of the time wasted and decreases the potential for human errors.

So, let's quickly recap how e-business can contribute to your bottom line:

  • Increases productivity by streamlining tasks and reducing unnecessary work.
  • Automates and simplifies material procurement process.
  • Improves efficiency by cutting out waste and reducing errors.
  • Enhances business operations with online pricing updates and online receipt of requests for payment.
  • Boosts sales because you have more time to devote your resources to more customers.
  • Improves customer satisfaction by delivering projects on time and on budget.
Most importantly, e-business means better control over estimating, budgeting, pricing, work orders, ordering, delivery, construction planning and scheduling. And improved efficiency opens the door for improved profitability.