Trash Net

When officials in Rancho Mirage, Calif., put their waste removal franchise up for bid during the first quarter of this year, four companies entered the competition. One of them, however, brought in a new marketing weapon:

Waste Management of the Desert, located in Palm Desert, Calif., about 15 miles east of Palm Springs, had held the trash removal franchise for Rancho Mirage for 17 years. As the date of the Rancho Mirage decision neared, the company worked its new website, soliciting comments about the quality of its services and informing customers about public meetings related to the selection process.

According to Mark Wasserman, the company's vice-president of marketing, about a dozen customers a week responded with comments, which Wasserman forwarded to the city.

In early April, Rancho Mirage voted to renew its agreement with Waste Management.

While no one would assign full credit to the website for the victory, Wasserman believes it played a role. "The website has been a tremendous marketing tool," he says.

The Full Customer Fold Success in the trash business in the Cochella Valley, where Waste Management of the Desert operates, requires broad capabilities and a steady marketing hand. Each of the area's 12 jurisdictions operates by franchise under five to seven-year contracts. Waste Management holds the franchises for 10 of those jurisdictions, including eight cities and two counties that provide the company with a total of 82,000 residential customers and 5,000 commercial customers. The only areas outside of Waste Management's customer fold are Palm Springs and Desert Hot Springs.

The trash business in Waste Management's regions rise and fall with the seasons. In winter, the population jumps to about 250,000 people from a base of 120,000 year-round residents. A single facility with 120 employees and 70 residential and commercial trucks help service all the customers. Waste Management provides residential and commercial trash removal, recycling pickups and yard waste collection.

An additional segment to the company's business comes from the large number of special events held in the Cochella Valley each year. The region hosts more than its share of professional golf tournaments, including the PGA's Bob Hope Chrysler Classic and the LPGA's Nabisco Championship. For these and other special events, Waste Management supplies Crowd Pleasers, a brand of portable toilets.

Weaving a Web of Information The website markets, supports and extends all of Waste Management's services. Customers logging into the site will find a homepage that lists all the local jurisdictions using Waste Management services. By clicking on the name of a city or county, customers can learn what services are available there. Additionally, event coordinators can learn about waste services provided for tournaments, concerts and large public gatherings.

New and seasonal residents can sign up for service online. The website also details procedures related to manual and automated trash collection service, as well as informs customers about how much trash may be set out, recycling, annual clean ups and even composting.

According to Wasserman, the site appeals to government officials in Waste Management's franchise jurisdictions. "The site shows them our commitment to their communities, while providing an effective means of communication for customers," he says. "In addition, our site provides links to websites operated by the municipalities we serve, and those sites provide links to our site. So we help generate traffic for each other. The cities we deal with really like the idea."

The site also is designed to appeal to parents and children. According to Wasserman, there is a kids page with a series of cartoons and interactive games promoting environmental goals such as recycling. It also provides educational information.

For example, a young girl recently visited the website to collect information about composting for a school science project. Her success led the girl's father to send Wasserman a complimentary e-mail.

One of the site's most innovative and advanced features, however, is that it allows customers to pay their bills with a credit card online. Waste Management customers that are concerned about transmitting their credit card numbers over the Internet can download a form, then fax in their information.

According to Wasserman, this web option definitely helped extend the company's customer service arm. Residents began using the service as soon as it became available. In fact, 35 customers paid on the web in the site's first 45 days of operation, he says.

Web at What Cost? While a local trash company website may look more like a frill than a tool to build more business, this new technology has seen growing application in the waste industry - for Waste Management as well as other haulers.

The city of San Jose, Calif., for example, requires both of its trash haulers (Waste Management, Houston, and The Green Team, San Jose, Calif.) serving its residents to provide websites linked to the city's site.

"We've been doing this for two years," says Elaine Leung, a city spokeswoman who works with the San Jose residential recycling program. "We wanted to have one uniform source of information available to all residents. On our web page, residents can get information about signing up for trash removal services. By clicking on the button for the hauler serving their area, customers can find specific information about pickup days and recycling procedures."

Leung believes that informational websites explaining trash services provide important services and count as part of the cost of doing business today.

For Waste Management of the Desert, web technology may be helping to lower - or at least control - the cost of doing business.

Jan Deggendorf, the company's customer service supervisor, says e-mail has improved her ability to support customers. "Customers order service, recycling crates and automated cans with a form we provide on the website," she says. "We can announce citywide cleanups on the site. When customers schedule special items for pickup over the web, we don't have to go to their homes to schedule special pickups.

"With e-mail, customers can request service whenever they have time instead of only during business hours," she continues. "Responding to e-mail requests allows me more freedom, too. I can get back to people within 24 hours, and I'm not tied to the telephone. Our experience is very positive."

Designing a Website Creating a useful website does not have to be difficult. Wasserman, who had previous website experience, created the Waste Management of the Desert site in about six months during 1999.

Before joining Waste Management, Wasserman worked as public relations director for the Riverside County Sheriff's Department, where he set up a news site for the media. To create the company's site, Wasserman began by making a list of customer needs.

The list included: * 24-hour-a-day access to information about trash pickup and recycling;

* Replacing the need to telephone customer service for information during business hours with e-mail, which is available at all times;

* Providing a direct means of communication with the company's management; and

* Offering an online bill payment option.

Once he established this list, Wasserman says he refined his web solutions by talking to department heads.

Jan Deggendorf in customer service asked for pictures of items such as 3-yard bins and 30-yard roll-off trailers. She also asked for a section discussing recycling items.

"I asked that the site include answers to the questions customers ask our department every day," Deggendorf says.

Goals in hand, Wasserman says he then sketched out a flow chart for the site, showing the various buttons and links that would enable users to navigate it. Designing a website flow chart may sound like it requires creative skills and web savvy, but "people shouldn't be intimidated by the idea of making a flow chart," Wasserman says. "It's really just an outline that organizes the information and services you want to provide."

"The web-design firm can help refine the outline," he adds. "The point is that you need to write out what you want your site to accomplish."

Once he had his flow chart, Wasserman interviewed half a dozen companies offering web design services. The responding bids ranged from $2,500 to $8,500 to create the site, plus monthly fees for hosting and maintenance. He selected a $2,500 proposal offered by Desert Publications Inc., Palm Springs, Calif., but not because that company had the low bid.

"Desert Publications offered more features than the other providers," Wasserman says.

According to Todd May, management information systems director with Desert Publications, a high price carries no guarantee of a full range of web features. "There are no guidelines when it comes to cost," he says. "You have to ask for a number of bids and evaluate what they offer."

Varying bids may relate to different technical needs. According to May, a website aimed at a local community does not, for example, need to deal with high-powered search engines that foster connections with people across the country and around the world. Waste Management's target audience included local residential and commercial users, and special events planners.

"Our focus was to tailor a site for local users seeking information, communications and services," May says. Then, because Desert Publications is an advertising agency, it helped Waste Management promote the site to the local community through media advertising and mailers carrying the web address.

Measuring Results During the first three months of operation, Waste Management's site attracted more than 10,000 hits.

"It's difficult to make further assumptions about that number," Wasserman says. "Individuals probably come back several times. But 10,000 hits means that a good portion of our community has looked at the site."

Another encouraging statistic came from the customer service department, where the number of telephone callers placed on hold and hanging up declined by 1 percent during the site's first three months of operation.

"I think we can attribute that to people finding answers on the website," Wasserman says. "In fact, I've received a number of e-mail notes from residents who say the site makes it easy to get information and eliminates the need to call customer service on the phone."

Andrea Stephenson, director of municipal development for Waste Management's western area, says that the site's informational and service capabilities send powerful messages to customers.

"The site highlights our commitment to recycling," she says. "In addition to information about recycling services, the site describes our investment in recycling infrastructure and helps people understand what is involved in recycling.

"I think the on-line bill paying feature is a technological breakthrough for a waste company," she adds. And overall, the "website shows customers that we are serious about using new technology to improve service."

Designing a website for a trash hauler presents some challenges to site designers, says Todd May, Management information systems director with Desert Publications Inc. of Palm Springs, Calif.

"Many designers promise things like high-performance search engines," May says. "They also promise to apply techniques that will make it possible for people around the world to find the site. These things aren't necessary for a local hauler, who needs a local community focus."

If web reach isn't specified, haulers may get a range of price bids - anywhere from $1,500 to $10,000 - for website creation, according to May. Consequently, it is important to be specific about local, national or international goals when getting bids

In addition to the site development cost, haulers also will face two additional fees: one for hosting and one for maintenance.

Hosting involves using web servers and other Internet equipment that store and deliver a site's information. Site developers will provide this equipment or arrange for it. Hosting fees can range from $20 to $125 per month, May says.

Maintenance fees cover regular changes and updates to the website. For example, a pricing change will require placing updated pricing information on the site. According to May, maintenance fees will vary according to the frequency of the changes expected to be made. He recommends questioning providers closely about maintenance fees and what they include.

"What if you change your logo and graphics package?" May asks. "You will want your provider to make these changes without charging a new round of full production costs. You should discuss these costs when you negotiate the original contract."

May also warns against signing a long-term contract. "Five years is too long for a contract term," he says. "What if the company you are dealing with gets into trouble and can't keep up service? You're better off with a short-term contract that lasts for six months or a year."

Overall, when picking a website developer, haulers should work to create the kind of contract they want - not just what the developer wants.

"The web has come a long way," May says, "but there are still a lot of people who will take advantage of the fact that customers don't understand the technology."

Waste Management of the Desert has been exploring ways to bring customers to its website.

Shortly after the website went on line, Mark Wasserman, the company's vice president of marketing, developed and up-loaded a page announcing a drawing for a year's free trash pickup service. Customers visiting the site, completed a survey asking several multiple choice questions about the quality of Waste Management services. Upon completion, their names were entered into a drawing. More than 100 people entered.

The on-line drawing proved so popular that Wasserman plans to make it an annual event.