Plastics. In the classic film, The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman’s character Benjamin Braddock was told that plastics were the future. And while plastics were plentiful at the Building Service Contractors Association International (BSCAI) 2002 Convention and Trade Show exhibit hall, this time, the future was “communication.”

BSCAI devoted the greater part of one day to technology-related issues. In addition to the software vendors at the trade show, several speakers discussed technology. Most notably, keynote speaker Terry Brock illustrated how high-tech tools, from the ubiquitous cell phone to innovative new gadgets, can help building service contractors communicate with their customers and employees. Brock is a professional speaker, consultant and columnist for the American City Business Journals.

Technology, Brock said, has sped up our everyday lives. For instance, years ago, the stock market might barely budge after an earnings warning, natural disaster or other event, because communication tools of the day didn’t spread the news quickly. Now, however, the Dow Jones Industrial Average might reel or skyrocket within minutes of an announcement or news event, because phones, the Internet and 24-hour news networks disseminate information almost instantly.

To illustrate that point, Brock pulled up a PowerPoint presentation that cited events and figures as recent as the previous trading day’s closing bell. Contractors, too, can use technology to quickly disseminate up-to-date information to their customers and employees.

Brock listed several innovations contractors can use. For instance, there are now digital cameras about the size of a credit card that sell for less than $150. Contractors can easily take these to work sites for inspections, complaint response or pre-bid walk throughs, and instead of waiting for film to develop, BSCs can upload the pictures to a computer immediately. Digital video cameras, also, are becoming smaller and more technologically advanced. Users can make DVDs or still photos from digital video images.

Seeking satisfaction
When using any technology, customer satisfaction is the most important thing to consider, Brock said.

“It’s about meeting their needs,” he explained. “For instance, e-mail is a great form of marketing, but there’s too much junk.”

Give customers what they want in e-mail communication, he advises. Keep mail simple and easy to download, but include Web links for more information.

Web sites can be more technologically advanced than an e-mail message. In addition to the standard contact information, list of services and specials, he suggests including audio or video clips, such as testimonials, on a Web site.

“Your Web site should be viewed as an integral component of the total service package you are providing,” Brock said.

Web sites, he said, create an ongoing public presence. While they must be attractive and accurate, they need not be complex, especially at first.

“Start small,” he said. Free or low-cost Web site services, such as Homestead, Yahoo! Geocities and Tripod can be a useful tool initially.

However, many free sites place banner ads across member Web sites to offset the cost, and do not allow for personal domain names, so spending a few dollars a month may be worth it.

Whether your Web site costs $5 or $500 a month to run, include a site-based offer for customers — say, a free consultation, trial products or a percent-off coupon. A white paper on a hot cleaning topic could be offered via a certificate.

However, all of this technology must be supplemented with the human element, including some decidedly low-tech touches.

“Send a letter or a postcard, or another three-dimensional object — a touch a month,” Brock suggests.

In-house conversation
Communicating with employees can be very similar to communicating with customers, especially because if it is done improperly or not at all, problems can occur. And BSCs have an added challenge — with many employees working far away from company headquarters, keeping in touch for routine matters, emergencies and training can be difficult.

In addition to the usual cellular phones and pagers, Brock suggested key employees carry handheld computers or PDAs (personal digital assistants). These PDAs can tap into wireless networks, either built on site or through a modem feature, to access checklists, e-mail or other instructions. More sophisticated computers can be used for online training modules or video conferencing.

These devices can be expensive, but BSCs can keep costs down by using free services. For instance, sites such as Yahoo! offer a calendar feature, which can be used to track important meetings, jobs or even client birthdays. Individual calendars can be made public or password-protected for confidentiality.

By Stacie H. Whitacre, Managing Editor