Now they're reinventing themselves.
At Cisco Systems, people who once took orders over the phone are now "strategic business representatives," charged with understanding customers' needs and keeping other departments on the same page with those needs.
At Dell Computer Corp., a "distributed authorship program" based on Microsoft Corp. technology lets thousands of people contribute to the company's growing Web site, not just the 50 or so members of the online marketing staff.
What customers want
At Grainger.com, top executives now get a weekly summary of exactly what their customers want and need, based on the site's huge e-mail traffic.
Even giant IBM Corp. has been transformed, building separate Web offerings for customers, partners, suppliers and those in its sales channels.
"We're seeing there are more audiences, and you can't treat them all alike," says Wayne Flagg, IBM's VP-business strategy in its Enterprise Web Management unit.
The task of a business-to-business Web site has shifted in the last year, from marketing and transactions to knowledge management and customer service, Mr. Flagg says.
"Our mission is to eat our own cooking and learn from it. IBM is selling e-business, but part of that goal is to be the leading e-business," he says.
This is how it should be, says Jim Nail, a senior analyst with Forrester Research, Cambridge, Mass.
What today's Internet marketing leaders are doing to distinguish themselves, Mr. Nail says, "is they're tearing down walls between themselves and customers, even walls within the company.
"What people want on the Web is oceans of content a spoonful at a time," Mr. Nail adds, explaining that answers must be easy to find to be useful.
So it takes more than sales to be a leading e-business today. Cisco Connection Director Chris Sinton says that in June, his company was doing 57% of its business online, up from 26% a year before. The goal for next year is to do 80% of sales online.
More important, Mr. Sinton says, is the business transformation that Cisco Connection is driving across all functional areas of the enterprise.
"In the area of marketing [for example], there's been a fundamental shift to Cisco Connection Online as the communications vehicle," he says, with 192 million pages viewed last year alone.
"The company's marketing groups are now hiring people dedicated to being Web editors," Mr. Sinton says. "They're shifting their spending from print to Web content delivery and promotions that can be implemented online."
As a result, marketing that took weeks now take minutes.
At Dell, Patricia Crowell, online marketing communications manager, says the company has learned the trick of integrating its Web site with its customers' networks.
Large accounts now do paperless purchase orders from Dell "Premier Pages" Web sites that integrate with the customers' accounting systems.
Smaller businesses have "virtual account representatives" through their Premier pages, which offer training and briefings on new products, Ms. Crowell says.
Dell has always had a lot of databases, she adds. "We've just learned how to make it available to people who need to see it," using the Web.
"A lot of this is information customers have traditionally had to track themselves and hire staff to track," Ms. Crowell says. "Dell is providing that now to the customer, saving customers millions of dollars in support costs."
These changes are true outside the technology industry, as well. Don Bielinski, group president for W.W. Grainger, calls the Web an "electronic dialogue with the customer," which must be personal to be effective.
That's what's behind Grainger's site registration process, which gives each of its 2.4 million customers a unique ID and password. Once it gets that input, Grainger can personalize its content to each customer based on that knowledge.
"Each customer comes in with a problem they need to solve," he says. "A compressor may not be working, closing an assembly line. We need to get them from the problem to a solution, then complete the transaction with availability and customer-specific pricing.
"If you don't have the back-end logistics support behind that to complete that cycle, you don't have the solution."