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If you've ever used a computer network, imagine a whole load of similar networks linked together. No one owns -the net itself; but some of the networks that link to the net are owned by companies, or universities, or by commercial service providers. There's no single way of using the net, either: it provides all sorts of connections, from simple E-mail to the graphics-filled 'pages' of the World Wide Web.
No-one even knows how many people are connected to the Internet—some estimates go as high as 40 million—and once connected it costs no more for you to reach a customer in New Delhi or New York than in Milton Keynes. Just a local phone call, in most cities in the UK. and you're connected. So if you run an international freight business, the Internet is definitely something you should consider.
Many companies believe you simply put a page on the Web, and that's it; just like taking an advert in a trade magazine. But wise advertisers follow up with sales and after-sales support, and that's what you should do on the Internet, too.
The Internet makes this easy. Using E-mail, and maybe setting up an open discussion area, you can get to know your customers better. E-mail your customers to let them know about new service developments; let them e-mail you with problems or suggestions. Your relationship with your customers can now become continuous; not just a monthly call or an annual sales trip.
It would be a mistake to see the Internet just as a way of pushing information out: it can also be a potent means for sucking it in and then distributing it around the business. The lack of a central authority or even a central 'telephone directory' makes searching the Internet difficult, but once you, get the knack there's a lot of useful information out there. For instance, many governments offer information about their economies and culture which would help you if you planned to expand in, or export to, that country
E-mail can also be a wonderful way to keep in touch with suppliers and consultants. Unlike the telephone, you don't have to depend on finding them in when you ring; just leave a message ancl,wait for them to collect it. Similarly, people who are out on the road all day can read their E-mails when they get home.
You can transfer computer files, too. That might not sound very exciting but it means that you could, for example, send a draft contract to a customer.
Besides the formal sources of information on the World Wide Web, the Internet contains newsgroups which work like a staff noticeboard. People 'pin up' requests for help, or items for discussion, and other people reply, often leading to a long-lasting discussion. Many of these newsgroups are simply opportunities for people to sound off, but some are useful places for asking specific business quest ions and most users are all too happy to help out— some users have even found accountants willing to offer free advice with tax returns.
All sorts of professionals contribute to newsgroups or forums such as UKPROF on the CompuServe commercial system so you can get useful tips on everything from financial planning to researching new markets— although, as always, you assume that every Internet user knows what they're talking about!
You'll be much more likely to make a suc cess of any move online if you can find a good consultant to help introduce your business to the Internet. Look for someone who understands your markets and
your business not just a computer boffin—and ask careful questions about what training you'll need, and what support you'll get on a continuing basis.
The real key to making the Internet work for you, is to be clear about what you want to use it for. Make it fit your own business plans. You want to let some of your staff work from home?
Internet access could well make that feasible. You want to develop your transport business in Hungary? Use the Internet to keep in touch with potential customers.
The Internet is a potent technological resource. But, when all's said and done, it's j -t another resource. Use it wisely by Andrea Kirby Information on Internet providers can he found in specialist Internet magazines, wilable at newsagents.