The Nashville-based hospital giant doesn't use the site to market itself to the many companies that want to do business. Instead, vendors are told to complete an online profile questionnaire, which essentially requires them to prove they have something special to offer.
The questionnaire starts by telling vendors what Columbia expects from them: a national distribution system, for example, and a national accounts manager to coordinate business dealings.
Vendors are then told to fill out the form on the Web, which, among other items, asks for information about the company, its product, its top three employees, recent sales volume, marketing and sales techniques, freight terms and average lead times.
Potential new vendors, most of them medical supply companies, happily comply.
"It's working extremely well," said Tod Fetherling, Columbia's director of interactive marketing. "We've awarded several contracts to vendors, most of them smaller, who otherwise never would have come to our attention." Most of those companies, Mr. Fetherling said, offered unusual products or services.
"One had a security system for our obstetrics areas. It's a product that helps identify parents and their newborn child at all times," he said. "The form works. It allows people to introduce themselves to us."
'AN EVEN PLAYING FIELD'
Thomas Clements, president of Mectra Labs, a small medical equipment supply firm in Bloomfield, Ind., said that's exactly how the online questionnaire worked for his company.
"It gave us a shot on an even playing field," said Mr. Clements, who said Columbia is reviewing his 15-employee company to see if it qualifies as a vendor of laparoscopic instruments.
"It was easy to use, and it was well thought out," said Mr. Clements, who said Columbia is the first company he has sought out via the Internet.
Columbia's approach probably won't work on every company's Web site. Medical supply firms like Mectra, for example, have little choice but to comply when dealing with a corporation that owns 347 hospitals, 130 outpatient surgery centers and nearly 200 home health agencies.
But clout is only one advantage created by Columbia's massive size (the company says it is the 10th largest employer in the United States, and 22nd-largest worldwide). Another advantage is inventory efficiency, reflected in a new offering on Columbia's Web site designed to facilitate the exchange or sale of surplus medical supplies between company-owned institutions.
An official at a Columbia hospital in Nashville, for example, can call up CEQUIP (Columbia's Surplus Medical Equipment and Supply Network) on Columbia's intranet and browse through databases listing supplies available for sale at other Columbia hospitals. Prices, descriptions and the available quantity are listed on an electronic order form.
The supplies initially are listed only on the company's intranet, but after 30 days, the forms roll over to the Internet, where they are available for general sale.
"If there is no interest after 120 days, and if the equipment is fully depreciated, we donate it to relief organizations," Mr. Fetherling said.
STILL DOCUMENTING SALES
Because the network went online only weeks ago, Mr. Fetherling said, the company is still in the process of documenting sales. In all aspects of the Web site, he said, Columbia officials are concerned with measuring results.
"We track hits and page views on a weekly basis," Mr. Fetherling said. During the last week of August, for example, the Web site had 172,000 hits and 40,000 page views.
The company's Web site is more than a year old, having gone online in May 1995. It was initially developed by Career Mosaic, a Palo Alto, Calif., firm, in consultation with Columbia marketing officials, Mr. Fetherling said.
It premiered at four pages, but began growing soon after control was formally transferred to marketing officials three months later.
"We made it much more of an information resource." Mr. Fetherling said. "That's when it really took off."
Among other features, the Web site includes a chat room for nurses, a consumer health manual, a facilities guide, a sports medicine series and a job bulletin board.
WEB WORK DONE IN-HOUSE
All the work on the site is done in-house by six employees, Mr. Fetherling said. He said it's difficult to pin down the exact cost of operating the site because the employees also work with the intranet and online services.
He estimates the annual expense at about $100,000 to $200,000. Most of that is personnel costs, he said, although software expenses add to the bottom line.
Mr. Fetherling said Columbia decided to place the Web site under the control of marketing officials because they are best able to keep the information timely and relevant.
"We felt marketing was better able to develop content and context," he said.