GE Plastics may not have come up with the idea of turning Web pages into functional business tools, but its b-to-b toolbox may well be the largest.
Product engineers at manufacturers as varied as Lego and Ford Motor Co. can start at www.geplastics.com with just an idea. In short order, they can sketch out a design, select materials, test chemical compatibility with non-GE components, calculate material costs, share the ideas with colleagues and place the order, all with the help of automated or live GE specialists.
At any time, a user can click a button called GE Live and within 40 seconds be connected with a GE engineer, either by text chat or phone. A front-line employee determines the nature of the question. Those customers asking easy questions about one of the site’s 2,000 data sheets are sent to junior engineers; for more involved design questions, senior engineers are summoned.
In either case, there are employees who can answer questions in nine languages. Engineers are on hand 24 hours a day, six days a week.
"The idea is to create a marriage between online and offline solutions," said Beth Pearson, the GE unit’s global e-business services manager. "You go on the Web, look for what you’re interested in, and if the calculator or other tool is too complex, you can connect with a live person."
The site boasts 210,000 registered users. Online orders have ballooned, from $10 million in 1998 to $2.7 billion last year, just more than half of GE Plastics’ total revenue. "We would love to see the day when all of our ordering and a large number of interactions were online," Pearson said.
Users can do more than talk to GE engineers. "If Nokia has a new cell phone housing that they want to better design, they can push the design to the engineer for a look, even if the engineer doesn’t have that software on his desktop," Pearson said. The front-line engineer can even loop in molders and cell phone design experts from GE or even secondary suppliers. GE uses Cisco’s WebLine customer service and interaction software.
Team members can collaborate using Project Workspaces that are repositories for all documents and communications related to the project. The workspaces are grouped in specialized areas of the site for telecom equipment, automotive parts, handheld devices and other product categories.
Even before they start the design, users can take any of the 64 e-seminars GE offers using software from PlaceWare Inc. on topics such as the flame and impact resistance of outdoor plastic enclosures. While a live presenter is talking, the user can ask questions and use the site’s interactive design and calculation tools. Last month, these courses became available on demand as recorded classes.
But persuading customers to place orders online isn’t the primary objective. "The real game now is online interaction," said Amelia Burkhart, global manager of GEPlastics.com
GE refers to the collection of applications as "smart lead generation." Watching customers and prospects use these tools tells GE Plastics salespeople a lot about users’ needs. "We’re smarter when we know that Motorola has visited the site five times and attended three [virtual] seminars," Pearson said. By the time a salesperson gets involved, "This isn’t a cold call. It’s a pretty warm call in that we’ve watched the customer do his job."