Many of us have experienced the sensation of time speeding up. Things we planned to achieve didn’t happen because we were busy with other “stuff”—and then another year was over and opportunities missed. It is often no different in the electrical contracting business. However, being aware of this phenomenon allows us to be proactive for once, and to launch a 2001 strategy that will show us ahead of the game when we are taking stock in 12 months.

I predict that three trends will be relevant in 2001. This article presents some of the available technology applications that take advantage of these trends.

Trend 1: Master the electronic information challenge

It may sound harsh, but it is not my job to nurture complacency: If you are a long-time business owner who believes that you can get by in your last few years without understanding and using computers and the Internet, you had better sell now. You may never get more for your business.

I am not talking about the advantages that the computer offers for business tasks or the Internet provides in screening data on potential customers, competitors, or job applicants. But how about the need to make instantaneous decisions vital for your business while the customer and your competitors are interacting?

Case in point: Reverse auctions—a terrible plague for some, an exciting opportunity for others. Here’s how it works: A specified job is put out on the Internet with a maximum cost limit. Any contractor with the required credentials can place lower open bids continuously within the allotted time. The lowest bidder wins. Truth is, if you don’t tune in, you won’t even know it ever happened. While Las Vegas or eBay might be a good place to work on your reaction time, it is the sound knowledge of your cost structure, critical cost, and capacities that will determine your strategy for each bidding process. Reverse auctions will gain steam because they do what the Internet does best: introduce more entrepreneurs to more wallets. And you need to be there.

Trend 2: Master your field of experience

Conventions and conferences have educational and social components but they require a valuable currency: travel time. Correspondence courses have always offered purely factual knowledge, and have been enriched over the years with audio and videotapes as well as interactive CDs.

The newest evolution of education is Web-based training (WBT), or “e-learning.” You log on whenever there is some spare time, and you choose the speed and depth of the learning process. This self-paced learning option also allows students to measure progress by anonymously taking a test. Over 13,000 online courses are offered in the United States, so pick the right ones.

Trend 3: Master your customer relations

Your company installed electrical service in a new building years ago. The customer was happy and would have given you the next job, but the next one was five years later when an office addition was built. By then, a new purchasing agent had taken over, hired a new GC, and you found yourself under “also ran” or in a reverse auction on the Internet. Why? You had lost contact over the years—no time for social calls. But telecommunications creates a reason to “keep the lines open.”

Every contractor knows that adding telecommunications cabling can raise profit margins. But I want to stress it as a reason to stay visible to your customer. The moving rate of office workers in the United States is currently 44 percent. That translates into a lot of re-cabling, and you could be at your customer’s premises every few weeks. When you also troubleshoot, they might want to talk to you about a service contract. Who do you think gets the job for the new office addition?

Evolutions in technology applications

Observers report that the cabling business for commercial offices is cooling down. Even if this proves to be true, many applications will not peak in the next year:

* Data centers pool customer service, tech support, and inside sales functions with maximized computer support.

* Multi-tenant buildings require a common pathways and spaces infrastructure.

* Small offices/home offices (SOHO) call for high-speed cabling for the growing number of people working out of their residences.

* Industrial data cabling ties manufacturing and processing equipment to the control center.

* Distributed low-voltage power replaces the hundreds of small power supplies in the building.

* Transceivers have to be installed for wireless VDV applications.

* Many customers need more bandwidth.

* Customers want to futureproof their investment in the cabling plant.

* Keep thinking.

Select your niche

Paint a picture in your mind of the services you want to add, educate yourself and your team about them, and market them to your current and past customers. This is practicing ET2.

KEDEN is the Codes and Standards Manager for ERICO, Inc. in Solon, Ohio. He also serves as chair of the TIA subcommittee TR42.5 and as document editor for the ISO/IEC ad hoc group preparing the international standard on telecommunications pathways and spaces. He can be contacted at rkeden@erico.com.