The soaring cost of gasoline, petrol and diesel fuel has led to crippling travel costs for many small businesses, hitting enterprises as diverse as rock bands, truckers and police forces. A few exceptions, though, have found a way to slash their fuel bills even while prices shoot skywards, by using Web technology to reduce the number of site visits they have to make.
Software consultancy TG Allison, for example, which helps dairy farmers in rural Wales maximize their milk yields, has cut average weekly mileage by its employees from 200 down to 40 miles — an 80% drop — at the same time as increasing productivity and customer satisfaction. Instead of spending hours driving out to a client's farm whenever something goes wrong, the company's staff now use an Internet link to connect to the farm's computers and resolve the problem, often within minutes. Many farmers are also pleased to know the company has reduced its carbon emissions, says owner Thomas Allison.
In the US, Mark Fritch Log Homes is a specialist builder of log homes based in Sandy, Oregon. Company owner Mark Fritch has cut travel by 90% after replacing in-person site visits and project management reviews with virtual meetings held via Web conference. The Web-based meetings are more productive than phone calls, since participants can all view the same plans, pictures or documents, and they help maintain contact and trust with clients and project collaborators in between face-to-face meetings.
Both companies are achieving these results using Web meeting services such as GoToMeeting and GoToAssist from Citrix OnLine, as I learned last week from the provider's president Brett Caine during a visit (in-person rather than virtual) to London. Among several other stories, they leapt out at me as examples of how innovative use of Web technology can help small businesses tackle a big problem that's on everyone's minds at the moment.
But Caine wanted to make a broader point with this and other examples. "SMEs [small and mid-sized enterprises] are under more cost pressures than ever before," he said. "Customers are telling us we're helping them shift their economics — we've shifted the economics for small businesses."
An example that shows how radical an effect this can have is US cruise company Cruise West. Since adopting webcasts and Web meetings as a marketing tool, the company has transformed its sales cycle. Instead of relying on vacation shows and travel agents to sell its cruises, it now puts on 40 Web events each month, reaching prospects directly in their homes. It has found prospects are three to four times more likely to book a cruise if they've participated in one of the virtual events.
Another example is a British insurance company that initially started using webcasts to train the network of independent financial advisers that sell its products. It has since encouraged them to use Web meetings to do follow-up calls with prospects, helping them close more deals in less time.
These are all examples of ways to work and do business that the Web has made possible. It's not just about avoiding the rising cost of fuel, but that economic reality may give a further boost to the whole area of telepresence (ie, using the Web to meet and collaborate with people instead of physically getting together). Necessity, as they say, is often the mother of invention, so perhaps there will be even more innovative business models emerging as a result of the 'peak oil' crisis.