Paperless communication reduces errors Translation is a huge problem for e-business. Can your accounting system “talk” to your distributor’s business system, and vice versa? After all, your system has information the distributor needs; and you could use data in the distributor’s computer.

For most, the answer remains no, making e-business frustrating. One possible solution under development is XML (extensible mark-up language), which would allow “write once, be read everywhere.” Quick verdict: Not yet ready for prime time.

Despite that, in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Sterling, Va., Dulles Electric & Supply is using an on-the-market answer—“a universal translator.” What’s happening at this distributor brings e-business down to the level of every contractor, no matter how small.

With only 30 employees, Dulles isn’t Graybar or WESCO—the company specializes in serving small- and mid-sized electrical contractors. It actually shies away from big-contractor project orders.

No experts here

With 15 computers and 15 “dumb” terminals at a single location, Dulles is not IT heaven. General Manager John Milotte is also the company’s “tech genius,” and he’s no geek; his distribution career began in the warehouse.

“In 1995, when I took over as general manager, I didn’t want to depend on anyone else—we can’t afford an IT guy. Well, I guess we can, actually—I’m the IT guy,” he half-laughed. “When problems came up and we had to call our vendor’s support people, I would make them call me afterwards—to tell me how they fixed it. I wanted to know, so I could handle it later, if, some other time, we couldn’t get help from support.”

Of note: While Dulles E&S offers this technology to other customers, it chose to “pilot” it with its largest customer, a fast-growing local electrical contractor.

Reachable goals

After dot-com mania and other technology disappointments, no one could blame a small contractor for shrugging at the latest new thing.

But consider this: Dulles sends electronic documents to customers and receives from them on a regular basis. An average of 20 documents per day is sent back and forth from distributor to that growing “pilot” contractor.

Document transfers are routine; there’s no button to push, and no paper needed. Technology developed by Distributor Software Systems (DSS), marketed under the name “MiniVAN,” makes this possible. MiniVAN was brought to Dulles by the distributor’s technology consultant, Expert Systems Consulting.

Listen to DSS President Steve Levy describe MiniVAN operations, and you’ll walk away shaking your head. DSS says MiniVAN can “send and receive any business document, in any format, to virtually any recipient, even if the receiving company doesn’t even own a computer.” That last refers to those without e-mail; the MiniVAN sends faxes to them.

Does it work? Dulles and a handful of its contractor customers are using it today.

Payoffs

This isn’t online ordering, so where’s the payoff? Contractors can’t manage without good information. The MiniVAN offers Dulles’ customers rapid access to info they never previously had in a timely manner.

Line-item detail is added, literally, overnight. Dulles responds to purchase orders with this detail electronically. The MiniVAN automatically feeds this info right into the contractor’s accounting software (for the “pilot” contractor, it’s StarBuilder).

How it works: MiniVAN takes a document from Dulles, Levy said, and translates it electronically. After encrypting it, it e-mails the document to the contractor. A second e-mail tells the MiniVAN box on the contractor end how to decode the first.

In other words, the Dulles-to-contractor hook-up is e-mail only (no Web portals or online data entry), automated and secure.

Avoiding re-keying

Standard supplier interaction in construction today, even for many larger contractors, includes these steps:

o Contractor faxes supplier; the fax might be computer-generated, but it is received on paper.

o Distributor re-keys the data.

o Distributor sends order information back ... on paper. Result: More data re-keying, on the contractor end.

Of course, there’s a cost to all of this re-keying (guess who’s paying?). But, more importantly, mistakes in such a “process” aren’t just possible—they’re likely. According to the Industry Data Exchange Association, there is an average 10 percent-plus error rate in the paperwork faxed between distributors and manufacturers.

What Dulles offers its small-volume customer base, it appears, is faster access to quality information, fewer errors in ordering and billing, and more—a big step for smaller contractors on the road to a more profitable future. EC

SALIMANDO is a Vienna, Va.-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. He can be reached at jsali@cris.com.