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Firms Just Beginning to Realize Value in the Internet

Like a thirsty man squeezing the last drops of juice from an orange, companies are increasingly looking to their Internet presence to eke out just a little more productivity from their work forces.

That’s the view of several local technology analysts and businesspeople, describing the industry’s trends for 2006.

“If you’re a tech company, and it’s just a brochure up there on the Web, you’re way behind the times,” said Kevin Carroll, the executive director of the San Diego Council of AeA, a nonprofit trade association that represents the technology industry.

With database-management programs, discussion forums, video and better user interfaces, the Internet has business applications beyond simple e-commerce, Carroll said.

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“It’s also about using your Internet presence to drive productivity and efficiency,” he said.

Asked to describe this phase of Internet business development, Carroll said e-commerce isn’t maturing, so much as companies’ Internet savvy is.

There’s no doubt that the Internet is still a growing business. Corporate spending on online advertising alone is expected to surpass spending on magazine ads next year and radio by 2008, according to a BusinessWeek report.

And one of the areas where companies can easily boost efficiency and save money is through online customer service, said Reid Carr, the president of Red Door Interactive, a San Diego-based Internet management firm.

It’s not always easy.

Hardy Instruments Inc., a San Diego-based industrial equipment manufacturer, continues to search for the best way to market its online help resources.

Since September 2001, the company has posted technical help questions on its Web site, in part to assist international customers who need answers outside of regular business hours, said Hardy spokeswoman Milka Pejovic.

An average 1,000 visitors log on monthly for help, but the company hasn’t seen a significant drop in the time technicians spend answering phone calls, Pejovic said.

But there’s been an indirect benefit. The Web site has helped those very technicians, who can turn to the 625 answers posted online to give uniform advice to consumers.

“If it’s free tech support, people just pick up the phone,” Pejovic said. But, she added, “you have to be able to cater to a whole range of people.”

Some companies have begun introducing instant messaging on their sites to boost customer-service productivity. A technician can interact with five people at once, said Red Door’s Carr, instead of just one at a time on the phone.

As companies examine their Internet sales experiences, they’re increasingly trying to replicate the off-line feel of a salesroom in an online realm, Carr said.

Press releases and testimonials about products , relational content, Carr calls it , can help steer customers to the right product.

Web sites can give consumers the anonymity they want when they’re shopping.

No pressure. No sales pitch.

Now that 2006 is here, the business is moving beyond its fledgling stage. Now, Carr said, it’s into the fine-tuning.

“It’s not just about popping e-commerce up there,” he said. “It’s about doing it right.”

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