Web savvy for hire

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After spending most of his career on the agency side, Keith Sanderson went to work for Komatsu America International Co., the U.S. subsidiary of the Japanese heavy-equipment manufacturer. As the company's sales literature manager, he somehow found himself immersed in creating Komatsu's Internet strategy, beginning in 1996.

"It was an unbudgeted skunk works project," he says.

Mr. Sanderson jumped into the Internet, he says, because he feared ceding control of the Web, which he viewed as a marketing tool, to Vernon Hills, Ill.-based Komatsu's management information systems department. "They didn't want anything to do with it, really; it was just another job for them," he says. "But it wasn't just another job. This is the future."

Part of seizing control of the Internet, Mr. Sanderson learned, was selecting an electronic-business consultant. Because his project was an isolated type of undertaking, he moved the fledgling site along in what he calls "baby steps." So in selecting a Web consultant, he chose a company that had experience but was willing to move cautiously.

He selected Studio North, a small shop in North Chicago, Ill., that was transforming itself from an ad agency to a Web site designer and had experience with companies such as Abbott Laboratories.

"If you're just starting out, you should look for somebody to take some very elementary steps with," he advises.

Today, as Komatsu America's manager of electronic-commerce and Web site development, Mr. Sanderson is one of many b-to-b marketers playing a role in shaping Internet strategy.

In a second-quarter study conducted by Zona Research, Redwood City, Calif., 28% of companies polled said marketing executives are "most responsible for formulating and directing e-commerce strategy." That was up from Zona's first-quarter study, which found that only 15% of companies gave marketing executives that responsibility.

One of the most important pieces of that responsibility is choosing an e-business consultant. The selection could set the course for a company's next decade and could be worth billions of dollars.

"The opportunity cost of hiring the wrong company is incalculable," says Susan Goodman, exec VP-marketing and strategy for Think New Ideas, New York.

Types of consultants

E-commerce consultants have sprouted from coast to coast and range from wired b-to-b agencies such as Hensley Segal Rentschler, Cincinnati, to newfangled Web consultants such as Razorfish, New York, to traditional consulting companies such as Ernst & Young L.L.P., New York.

E-commerce consultancies are available in three basic flavors. Some provide e-business strategy. Others offer Web design and marketing support. A third kind focuses on information technology support, the nuts and bolts of building a Web site.

And now some e-business consultancies, such as USWeb/CKS, are offering combinations of the three services. USWeb/CKS was created when an IT operation merged with an ad agency. The new entity recently acquired Mitchell Madison Group, a business strategy consulting company.

Through its pending merger with AnswerThink Consulting Group, Miami, Think New Ideas is another e-business consultancy looking to provide one-stop shopping.

"We offer branding and positioning strategy and off-line advertising all the way through the systems integration," Ms. Goodman says. "Any client building a multimillion-dollar Web site or involved in a major Internet initiative needs to be working with either an end-to-end provider or a general contractor."

Andrew Bartels, senior research analyst for e-commerce at Giga Information Group, an e-business technology research company in Cambridge, Mass., disagrees.

"The reality is that each of these different things … typically requires a different skill set," he says. "It is possible for a consultant to hire top-notch talent in all of these areas--in theory, yes. But in practice, it's much more questionable. Even if they have it, the question is do they have it in sufficient depth?"

It seems there are as many approaches to choosing a Web consultancy as there are b-to-b companies on the Web.

Dave Goudge, Boise Cascade Office Products' VP-marketing, is responsibile for the Itasca, Ill.-based office supply company's e-commerce strategy. He uses e-business consultants sparingly, and only in their area of expertise.

For most Internet work, Mr. Goudge prefers to rely on his e-commerce department, which started three years ago with two people and now has 40. He does use a host of project-oriented consultancies, and when choosing, one thing he doesn't worry about is whether a consultant has office supply experience. "You have to retrain them every time anyway," he says.

Claire Zinnes, director of business information at Pall Corp., East Hills, N.Y., which manufactures high-end industrial filters, eschews the project-oriented approach.

A former marketing communications manager, she hired Hensley Segal Rentschler three years ago--a lifetime in Web years--and has stuck with the agency, which is responsible for Web site design and improving navigation and readability.

"I'm a big believer in finding a partner, not finding a supplier," Ms. Zinnes says. "I want someone who has longevity, some staying power."

She chose Hensley Segal Rentschler because she wanted an agency that could provide strategic advice and could focus on the goal of the Web site: to sell products.

"It's very easy to get caught up in bells and whistles, very easy to get sidetracked by technology. `What's the business model?' is the question you always have to keep in mind," Ms. Zinnes says.

Mark Taylor, who has a sales background, helped launch Provo, Utah-based Novell's e-commerce application, shopnovell, earlier this year. He believes in finding a consultant who is willing to wade into the Web slowly, step by step.

"Everybody wants to be a power hitter, hitting a huge home run," he says. "But once you have your strategy, you have to understand how you can deliver base hits in incremental fashion and continue to move forward on a day-by-day basis."

He also is partial to consultants who are able to adjust for Web feedback. "That's the reason why you have the customer in the cycle," Mr. Taylor says. "When you put the stuff up there [on the Internet], you know immediately what they like and don't like. Get rid of what they don't like."

Site testing

Komatsu's Mr. Sanderson is wary of the prevailing conventional wisdom that says companies must invest in back-end hardware and software before putting new features on a Web site. "Before you spend a million or two on the back end, make sure people are ready to receive what you're giving them on the front end," he says.

Nearly every element of the Komatsu Web site--from its new virtual trade show to the feature that points visitors to the nearest distributor--has been tested on customers before it has been linked to Komatsu's back-end procedures. And much of it has been accomplished hand in hand with Studio North.

"Boy, if it works," Mr. Sanderson says, "then, whammo, maybe we hook it to the back end. People argue that technology is the difficult part. I say it's the people part of the equation that's the hard part."

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