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Putting the Web to Work - Continued

Virtual Meetings

The shift from printing on paper to publishing on the Internet has meant that instead of wasting days trying to set up in-person meetings with clients or battling with subs and suppliers or having my employees running around looking for project specs, I can put everything online where we can all see it, then with just a phone call immediately solve issues that could otherwise bog down a job.

If I'm trying to get clients to agree to the scope and price of their project, I can upload a proposal or specifications and make changes to the scope of work and prices in real time while I have them on the phone. These sessions can last for hours, but by the end of the call, we are often in complete agreement about the project. I have them print the results of our "meeting" and take the document we worked on together to their attorney for final approval. Putting the clients in a position of power by involving them in the entire process sends the "trust factor" through the roof.

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Figure 5.Drawings of each room detail are linked to the online spec, along with links to external manufacturer websites (in this case, Benjamin Moore Paints). When selections are due, having all the information in one place makes it much easier for clients do their research, which cuts down on delays.

Speedier selections. Figure 5 shows our online specifications form. Notice that certain words are underlined -- that's because they're live hyperlinks to manufacturers' websites. When prospects or clients view their specs online, they can check out the appropriate products. This has helped tremendously with the selections process -- clients can spend their own time researching products whenever it's convenient for them, instead of me having to drag them around from showroom to showroom. We set strict deadlines for product selections, complete with financial penalties if clients are late. Because everything that happens to the project winds up online in our job journal or at the "Selections" tab, clients can clearly see how their action -- or lack of action -- affects other people working on the project. Putting the selection information online also creates intense accountability because nobody wants their friends and peers to read that they missed important deadlines during the construction of their new home.

If a shipment to a job site is damaged or missing, I snap a digital photo and upload it immediately from my truck using my laptop and wireless cellular modem. I can then get the supplier or sub on the phone and have him log on to our website to view the image -- often eliminating the need for him to come out to the job.

Photographs. I use both a Sony Mavica and a Kodak digital camera to take daily progress pictures. They are saved to a job photos folder on my laptop, which is pushed to the website as needed, sometimes twice a day, sometimes twice a week. The trick to hassle-free progress-photo uploading is making sure the camera is set to take pictures that are properly sized for the web in the first place, eliminating the need to open them in image-editing software before uploading (see Computers, 1/03).

There are also plenty of times when I need to add pointers and notes to a digital picture. That takes additional software, and I usually just use the photo editor that came bundled with my camera. Jasc's $99 Paint Shop Pro (www.jasc.com) is a good choice if you want a more full-featured image editor.

Time cards. We use the Internet to streamline day-to-day chores as well. For instance, my time card forms, customized for each employee, are always available online (Figure 6).

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Figure 6.The author's online time card is much more than just a blank form. Like the online project notes and specs, it contains information merged from the project databases and customized for each employee. Note the work phases, descriptions, and projected time left for each. The daily weather forecast is automatically added to help crew members best utilize their time.

We call them time cards, but they're really work orders. Employees can print them from their home computer and head straight to the job, instead of having to drive to the office just to pick up a piece of paper. The time cards are generated from our Agenda database every time the website is updated, and they're prepopulated with the work that needs to be completed for a particular job and the time remaining on the schedule to get it done. The employees add their actual hours on each category as the day progresses. At the end of the day, they fax or carry the completed time cards to our office manager, and she updates the records in the Agenda database, which in turn generates new time cards when she updates the website.

Our complete project log also is always online and always up to date, so clients, subs, and employees all know what's going on.

Nix the E-mail

E-mail might be the most popular use of the Internet, but I consider it a burden -- a never-ending time sink. Even if all your employees, subs, and suppliers are comfortable using e-mail, unless they check it constantly, it's a good bet they'll be responding to last week's problem. On the other hand, everyone I work with knows how to use a telephone. So we developed a system that takes advantage of the rapid response of the telephone but creates a written record of what goes on that is as good as what you get with e-mail.

As each job-related phone call comes into the office, my office manager types a note into the Agenda database. She can then do a sort on the database, which automatically adds the html tags, and save the file into a web directory on her computer. She also transcribes any voice mail that might have been left overnight. The next time she runs the batch file to update the website, the online job journal is also updated (Figure 7).

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Figure 7.Twice a day or more, phone calls and other correspondence are transcribed into our database by our office manager and then pushed onto the Internet. The same batch file that creates this web page also creates a miniversion that can be viewed on our cell phones. The project journal provides a written record that is every bit as good as e-mail but without the wasted time. Prospective buyers like seeing how well we resolve the daily issues that crop up, and existing clients can log on to see that their phone calls or other concerns have been acted upon.

More Phone Tricks

Our cell phones can display "wml" (wireless markup language) files, and the method to create them from our job journal database is the same as creating an html file. The wml versions are automatically created and uploaded to their own area of our website at the same time as the html versions. Our project managers have the link to the job journal programmed into their cell phones and know that anytime they have a question about what's going on, they can read the most current notes right from their phones -- no computer required.

Our cellular phone provider has a service that allows me to forward voice mail to a group of other users for a few extra dollars per month. I can let my own cell phone go to voice mail and then forward the messages as appropriate. Any project-related voice mail I receive can be forwarded simultaneously to my office manager and the correct project manager, all of whom have their own cell phones and voice mailboxes on the system. The superintendent can then take immediate action, while the notes are being transcribed and pushed to the Internet. Best of all, once I forward the message, it's off my "desk" and I don't have to think about it again. Clients know they can also check the project journal -- when they see a note of their call appear online, they know the situation has been handled (see Figure 7).

Web Cameras

The most recent additions to my website are real-time web cameras (Figure 8). I wish the technology had been available years ago. For one thing, I don't want unauthorized people milling around on my job sites. The webcams nearly eliminate unscheduled site visits, because my clients and their friends can "check in" on their jobs from anywhere at any time. It's remarkable how the webcams satisfy the urge of people to want to be there every day. Second, I can keep better track of my sites. The cameras we use are not cheapies -- they're professional models from Axis that have remote tilt-pan-zoom capability and can zoom in on an activity several lots down from where they're mounted. With my wireless laptop, I can check on deliveries and other job-site activity and take care of business even if I'm not physically there.

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Figure 8.A good webcam set up to monitor a job site will quickly pay for itself. The Axis model we use can zoom in on details several lots away from where it's mounted (above) and can be controlled from any computer or hand-held device with an Internet connection and a web browser.

Marketing Advantages

When I started building our project-specific website, I knew it would be a big help in project management. But I had no idea of the marketing impact it would have for us. In particular, our "job journal" is in full view of the world for every project we have under way. While we're careful to avoid language that might offend clients when they read their own notes (for example, we say that clients "are concerned" rather than "called to complain"), generally the journal notes are posted to the Internet with warts and all. Other builders and web consultants have told me I'm nuts to do this and that I should password-protect each job, but my customers tell me the opposite. Because the journal notes are online without censorship, prospective buyers can see not only the job progress, but also how well my company solves the inevitable problems that pop up. For someone spending $4 million on a new home, there is nothing more powerful.

While I don't analyze my web traffic to death, I can tell from the log files that clients and prospects spend far more time on my website than my subcontractors and employees do. In another violation of what web "experts" have told me, I purposely put the meaty information clients need deep on the site. This forces clients and prospects to come through the front door and click around a bit, which I believe reinforces the good impression our online job records leave with them. By the time new prospects actually call me to price a home, they feel that they know us personally because they've followed our job journal, progress photos, and web camera as if we were their favorite television series.

Todd Wacomeis the president of Wynwood Associates, a custom home builder in Andover, Mass.