The waste industry is not known for readily embracing new technologies and practices. After all, waste is, at root, a simple business. Companies pick up trash and recyclables while providing the best quality customer service they can. A hundred years from now, this will still be true.
In fact, two fairly recent reports confirm the industry's skepticism about technology. Environmental Business International Inc., San Diego, released a report last August that stated that the environmental industry was slow to develop a business presence on the Internet. Although nearly all of the 35 consulting and engineering firms surveyed used e-mail and had a website, only about 6 percent could be classified as conducting e-commerce.
A similar study released last July by Salomon Smith Barney, New York, indicated that waste company representatives felt that the Internet could be a helpful tool for business, but it would not revolutionize it. “We wonder whether the emerging oligopoly nature of the business … as well as the very local nature of the business limit some of the potential of at least the online marketplace or exchange aspect of what the Internet offers,” the report states.
The reports conclude that the waste industry is more likely to squint at the fine print. But you would not have been able to tell this was a skeptical industry if you judged it by last year's WasteExpo alone.
When the industry met in Atlanta, it was greeted with more than a dozen Internet startups designed to service the environmental industry. It was the year 2000, and the future of dot-coms seemed bright.
One short year later, however, the economy is in a downturn. Even the most promising dot-coms have failed, and many Internet prodigies now are looking for jobs. You can almost hear waste industry executives in back offices saying, “I told you so,” or “I knew it wouldn't last.”
Yet some say it may be too soon to give up on the Internet. Now that the dust has settled on the dot-com crash, the silver lining may be a more sober environment in which to do e-business. A few waste-related dot-coms have weathered the storm, offering lessons for other waste companies that want to venture into this exciting new world.
Making the E-Move
The main reason that so many dot-coms became dot-bombs, according to one industry insider, is that too many people felt that the new Internet environment required a new approach to business. This is exactly what not to do, says Kevin Officer, owner and president of EnviroConn.com, West Des Moines, Ia., who moderated a session on e-commerce at this year's WasteExpo in Chicago.
“Before we worry about e-commerce, we have to be an e-business and learn how to integrate e-business strategies into an existing business model,” Officer says. “Successful [e-business] companies are the ones that have a successful business plan with a ‘brick and mortar’ company. They can benefit the most by working toward e-commerce.”
Officer also encourages waste companies to remember that this is a service-oriented industry. Sometimes the best e-business strategy is to use the Internet to improve existing business practices or customer relationships — before using the Web to get new customers. Officer urges the industry to consider three basic questions, each of which builds on the previous:
How can the Internet technology or Web capability improve your company's back office systems?
How can the Internet improve existing customer relationships?
And, finally, how can the Internet expand your market foothold or get more customers?
Once you have answers to these basic questions, Officer says that e-mail is the key element of any e-commerce equation. In 1998, Officer reports, e-mail use surpassed telephone and snail mail, with 3.4 trillion e-mails sent compared to 107 billion pieces of first class mail. In a recent survey of waste professionals, 92 percent said that the best aspect of the Internet for work-related activity was e-mail.
Yet many solid waste companies have still not used e-mail as effectively as they could.
“Here's where a lot of companies are missing the opportunity, because e-mail has been around a lot longer than even the Internet,” Officer says. “Some of the benefits that e-mail gives us are that it is very cost-effective, and we can reach a mass audience. But I've still seen a lot of companies with business cards or letterhead that were still missing e-mail addresses. Companies still are not closing the communications loop.”
Closing the communications loop means tying your e-mail to your website, your website to your marketing materials, and your marketing materials to your sales staff. In the past, waste companies relied only on word of mouth and two-dimensional print advertising to publicize themselves. Too often they used what Officer calls the “buckshot approach” to marketing, placing ads in several journals and waiting for the calls to come in. By building a website that is cohesive in its look and message, and consistent with other materials, a company conveys professionalism and an ability to stay ahead of the curve.
“A website gives customers the ability to know our company before they even come to us,” Officer says. “In that process of building a customer relationship, it puts them one or two steps further in the buying process.”
But having your tech-head kid brother create a website for you is not the way to go. Even with technology as advanced as it is, Officer says that too many websites are amateurish and difficult to navigate. Others have too many slow-loading graphics, or they are weighed down with content. You might find the long and storied history of your company fascinating, but your existing and potential customers just want to get to the bottom line.
Furthermore, the website is just the most visible part of a waste company's e-commerce/e-business presence. Officer also suggests that companies request links on industry sites; publish an e-mail newsletter to keep clients, prospects and investors informed; place a text ad about the company in someone else's e-mail newsletter; and install a “signature,” such as a link to the website or a descriptive blurb about the company, at the end of every e-mail. Some waste companies also have staged lavish promotions — such as giving a car away — to lure people to their websites.
Companies also should take advantage of their website and e-mail to collect information about existing customers and prospects. Collecting phone and fax numbers is a common activity, but with an interactive website, companies can perform surveys about their products or services, and get immediate responses via online forms or e-mail. Printed surveys often are lengthy, tedious and costly to print and mail; with an online survey, companies have a cost-effective and targeted way to get information. [See “The Seven Deadly Sins of E-Business” below.]
So which waste businesses have had the most success developing their e-business platforms? Officer says the most successful e-commerce companies, understandably, are manufacturers with products to sell. “We've also seen, over the past three or four years, a proliferation of waste exchange companies that are looking to change the way transactions are made,” Officer says.
Although they differ in approach and purpose, e-commerce waste companies tend to be similar in key ways. They remember the basics, and they know that the Internet is just another tool in the quest to give quality service.
Learning from the E-Leaders
When the partners of Gershman, Brickner & Bratton (GBB), Fairfax, Va., joined with other solid waste executives from the Baltimore-Washington area to create an Internet presence, they asked themselves, “what are people looking to buy from their waste management companies?” The answer was service. Looking to automate the process of seeking and finding a waste hauler or recycler, these solid waste veterans created WasteBid.com.
Conceived as a one-stop shop for the waste and recycling industry, WasteBid.com facilitates match-ups between generators of trash and recyclables and qualified haulers and recyclers through a confidential online proposal and bidding system. The company has developed a patent-pending software engine, called Smart Engine, that allows interested parties to plug in information — type of building, whether they have a hauling contract, their estimated costs, whether they recycle, etc. — and be fed a list of applicable haulers or recyclers that match their needs. WasteBid.com also encourages waste reduction wherever possible.
“We're trying to promote more reduction and, more importantly, recycling of materials to raise that consciousness,” says Robert Brickner, chief operating officer of WasteBid.com, and senior vice president of GBB. “We are the online intermediary between the generators and the service-providers. WasteBid.com was specifically selected to make it easier to understand the nature of our business.”
Brickner admits that the hype about dot-coms and the ensuing crash may have deterred an already cautious industry. The key is to focus on core business. “We have tended to be, for a year, low-flyers,” Brickner says. “We know how slow and evolutionary this industry is and that it will take time for the market to absorb fresh ideas and new technologies. [In the past,] techies were trying to identify industry niches to jump on to make a killing. In our case, it's the seasoned industry officials using new technologies to address things we've been dealing with for years.”
Wasteclick.com, Orange, Calif., similarly has its roots in the long history of the waste industry, coupling that with knowledge gained from watching the demise of other dot-coms. The company found that websites that offered only news, product announcements and industry event calendars tended to be the same ones that failed. Wasteclick.com, by contrast, focuses on delivering savings to waste haulers, municipalities and waste industry service-providers. Wasteclick customers can purchase trucks, manage their books, read selected Waste Age magazine articles or plan for the WasteExpo trade show, through the company's partnership with New York-based Primedia Inc.
“To be successful, an Internet company needs a value proposition,” says Wasteclick.com President Patrick Sweeney. “The value is what gets the audience to the site every day. It's pure and simple — if I'm a customer, I want to invest my time and resources in something that will enhance my bottom line. We offer all these different applications that will save haulers money.”
For example, Wasteclick offers buyers' clubs where smaller haulers can buy trucks or other products together and save money. “We have this value proposition, we know the technology, we know the industry,” Sweeney says. “And we can cover all this marketing — the video technology, the online product catalog and e-mail campaigns. The Internet is the tool that weaves all these components together. It's an immediate, interactive tool for communication.”
Sweeney adds that WasteClick's success comes from a simple approach. The company kept the website functional and navigable, yet comprehensive (Sweeney calls it the Yahoo! for the waste industry).
Wasteclick provides a “premier shopping mall” for manufacturers to display information instead of having to create their own e-commerce sites. “We're giving you the community and the tools,” Sweeney says — “a one-stop shopping solution.”
Nevertheless, some manufacturers have made a foray into e-commerce on their own. For example, Heil Environmental Industries, Chattanooga, Tenn., has created an e-commerce site for its distributors that allows customers to access and place orders, and even form and check a database.
And once again, industry knowledge was key to the success of this company's e-commerce site. To discern how such a site could benefit their day-to-day activities, the company went straight to the distributors.
“We invited a few of our key distributors in at the beginning,” says Roy Summers, corporate director of marketing and business development for the company. “We wanted constructive input from their own experiences.”
But Summers emphasizes that the website is not a replacement for customer service and human interaction. “It frees up our customer service representatives to [sell] over the phone,” he says, “whereas before all their time was taken up dealing with orders.”
Clearly, the path to e-business is paved with experience earned on the streets and in the back offices of this vital industry. Regardless of what the future holds, we know that it is no longer a question of whether the waste industry will use the Internet, but how.
“Whatever the impact, large or small,” Salomon Smith Barney concludes, “the Internet has finally arrived in the solid waste industry, and it's here to stay.”
Kim A. O'Connell is a contributing editor based in Arlington, Va. For more information about technology, visit www.wasteage.com.
The Seven Deadly Sins of an E-Business
Kevin Officer, owner and president of EnviroConn.com, West Des Moines, Ia., outlines several common mistakes that waste companies should avoid when they embark on an e-business strategy.
- Sin: Going to market with no “bricks and mortar” organization.
- Solution: Determining customer needs and building the e-business around them.
- Sin: Having a beautiful website that doesn't work — or a technical web design that isn't user-friendly.
- Solution: Bringing creative designers, back-end developers and potential customers together from the beginning of the design process.
- Sin: Bombarding potential customers with unsolicited advertisements known as “spam.”
- Solution: Using various methods of permission-based marketing.
- Sin: Rushing to market a poorly designed business.
- Solution: Using intensive planning to ensure customers have a positive experience.
- Sin: Implementing solutions with little or no planning, resulting in re-work and cost overruns.
- Solution: Going slow now to go fast later.
- Sin: Offering too much free information on a site, creating the perception that it is not an e-commerce site.
- Solution: Knowing your likely revenue drivers before building the business to ensure that the user is led to the desired outcome.
- Sin: Collecting, sorting, analyzing and responding to market data without human interaction.
- Solution: Incorporating person-to-person customer service in the business model to ensure that customers' needs are met.
— Kim A. O'Connell