By Len Monheit
Over the past several weeks, we’ve been involved in several discussions regarding the level of information to disclose on-line, whether it’s on a corporate or product website or even in on-line communication (e-mail) itself.
At one time, companies debated whether there was a problem if technical data sheets and references got into the wrong hands. Consensus was never reached, with many believing that, just as research and science was borrowed, so too were reference lists and marketing materials in a very unscrupulous business environment. The counter argument suggested that if your competitors wanted the information, they were going to get it anyway, so you may as well take the benefits of providing it openly to your customer base, and as a result, many companies placed data sheets and references at their booths and in their corporate brochures.
The argument has now migrated on-line. In electronic format, it becomes so easy to alter and re-present the information that executives are now very wary of presenting this information at all, hamstringing customer service and client acquisition in the process.
So what are the solutions? How can you walk the fine line between presenting information while at the same time making it difficult for the information to be copied or reused? How can you provide selected and restricted access in order to better serve customers?
As far as the first issue is concerned, for some time it has been possible to produce documents which are copy protected. Programs from ‘Word’ to Adobe Acrobat provide options that can be easily used to restrict recipients’ use of the information you provide.
On-line solutions are another issue entirely, particularly as business operators see potential efficiencies available by moving processes on-line but hold back due to security or competitive concerns. The unfortunate irony of this situation is that they have invested heavily in developing a Web presence, but the usefulness of the site and the interactions on-line is severely limited and the site can present only ‘brochure-ware’.
More industry companies are developing reference lists and knowledgebases. And with a traveling sales force, diverse client base and increasingly competitive environment and pace of business, there is more pressure than ever before to enable stakeholders to access information on-line. As a result, it has become more possible for companies to post yet restrict access to mission critical information using VPN’s (Virtual Private Networks) Extranets and member only site access.
For instance, it is economical to develop a reference database (or knowledgebase), allowing internal users with authority to add or modify the content of this database and load it into a browser oriented system. Viewers (external or internal) can then view selected directories and records. This type of solution can include Certificates of Analysis, technical documents, sales and shipping records, quotations and more.
One scenario has a company shipping a particular lot of material to a client, adding that C of a record to the client information which enables the client to view that particular C of A through a restricted access component of the website. Another scenario has sales representatives with Extranet access to view and print the latest marketing materials for distribution to clients. This Extranet is also available to distributors around the world, reducing printing and shipping costs and allowing streamlined product launch. Yet another scenario involves the client’s formulation department being provided selected access to a series of directories with Interactive capabilities and a detailed list of answers, product characteristics and references that enables them to directly and effectively use the supplier’s knowledge and experience, turning this into a selling and competitive advantage.
Perhaps the best part of these solutions is that they have now been debugged by some of the larger corporations, their value has been established, and they have been made leaner and more effective as a tool for small to medium size business. And the price point has been placed in a range where the Return on Investment can be realized in months by most companies taking routes such as this.
These are some of the issues which should be considered by companies developing strategy, particularly those strategies which effective technology use can support. Even a slight competitive advantage can mean the difference between success and failure.