The pressing need for constant investment in a manufacturer representative's information technology capability is one that doesn't go away. If anything, it's a need that grows in importance-and expense. It's no longer an option for reps to be involved in e-commerce, says Hank Bergson, president, National Electrical Manufacturers Representatives Association (NEMRA), Tarrytown, N.Y. "Reps need to be in the intelligence loop, and manufacturers must keep them in that loop. They need to know what's going on in the territory. But in order to properly manage that intelligence, reps can't turn it into a fax and throw a piece of paper on somebody's desk. They must assimilate it electronically. In some instances, the rep's still going to be the point of entry, while at other times he will be the point of quotations and a lot of other things. But reps need to be much more computer-proficient and electronic commerce connected. They have got to be in that loop."

Bergson has seen his members move into the e-commerce arena in many different ways, but one sure sign is the number of reps with e-mail addresses. A few years ago, only 20% of NEMRA's members were accessible by e-mail but today that number has grown to near 100%.

Many reps who have seen the wisdom of making the needed investments in terms of time, money and personnel to ensure that they stay on the leading edge of information technology.

For instance, consider what Prime Devices Corp., Glenview, Ill., has accomplished. When discussing his firm's information technology on the Internet, Charles Cohon, president, looks back to the last time NEMRA conducted its annual conference in New Orleans, La. At that meeting he remembers a New Orleans-based speaker referring to the Cajun word "lagniappe," which he defined as "giving something a little extra." That's what Cohon and his firm provide their customers. Prime Devices' "lagniappe" includes the following:

Planning calendar. In order to assist its manufacturers in their future planning, the agency has posted a calendar at a separate site on the Internet (www.coordinator.com) so manufacturers can use this calendar when they plan their meetings. Included on the calendar are industry trade shows, events and other sales meetings. According to Cohon, "A sales manager can check the site for conflicts before scheduling a meeting. When they've picked a date, they can send it via e-mail or fax. We then add that date to the calendar on the Internet, so other sales managers who use many of the same reps can see that some of their reps won'tbe available."

Electronic capability brochure. "The information we've included," explains Cohon, "isn't so much directed at people looking for electrical equipment; rather, it's more for the prospective principal to enable him to learn as much as he can about us in order to determine if we would complement each other. "By using the Web page, I can offer them immediate access and provide the kind of overview of the agency that they need to have when making a decision," he says. "Once they get that initial view, I don't expect them to come back to the site again. It's for someone looking to hire a rep in the Chicago area and is wondering if we would be a good fit."

Cohon has never been apprehensive about the needed investment to provide this "lagniappe," as he looks at the payoff three-to-five years down the road.

"I don't expect this type of investment will pay off quickly," he says. "Rather, what we're trying to do is get to and stay a little bit ahead of the curve. Then when the rest of the world catches up, we're there waiting for them. It's all about knowing that I want to be more than just a strong rep for my manufacturers and customers. I'm constantly looking for those extra things I can do for them."

Another Midwestern rep says getting up to speed on information technology and the Internet is a daunting proposition but it's an investment that reps must make. "It's something that you can't not do," says Michael Rowe, Rowe Marketing Group, Inc., Chicago, Ill. "More and more of what we are doing today is information-based. That's the way the whole world is-if you're not connected, then you're disconnected. Just a few years ago, EDI only had a few people on board. Now look at what's happened. If you're not working with EDI, you're at a real disadvantage.

"Then, there's the Internet. Not long ago we were talking about how things might happen. Today people talk about what will happen. Everyone has a computer, and they're ready to conduct business over the Internet. Some companies have even switched from serving a local market to a national or even a worldwide market by putting their product offering out over the Internet. Whatever IT or electronic commerce best practices a rep has culled from others in the past might be serving them well today, but it may be an entirely new ballgame tomorrow."

A Web Site That Works Web sites have been one of the most common IT investments for reps. One rep who has had a Web site up for about two years says that the most important thing his company learned from its site is that it must be designed to produce return visits by customers. The Roth-Mooney Electrical Agency, an Indianapolis, Ind.-based rep firm that serves Indiana and Kentucky, offers a variety of online services accessible by password and customer identification, customers e-mail access to the firm's personnel, a line card, a "What's New" section, product reviews and links to other sites.

"From the beginning, we wanted to provide an answer to the question, 'Once you've been to the Web site, why would you keep coming back?' says Jeff Karnes, Roth-Mooney's vice president. "We gave the location some teeth so electrical distributors would feel they have bona-fide reasons for revisiting and that reason wasn't just to download information."

"From day one, we knew something had to be done, something that would secure our place in the future," he explains. "We've always been the kind of company willing to invest in our future. After all, those who don't will be left in the dust. We want to be an agency leading the pack."

He has seen more distributors taking an interest in online services. "There's no more Y2K concern to distract them," he says. "They are now providing their people with Internet access at their desktops and they now see that such access is a valuable tool, especially for their inside people."

Investments That Pay Off Part of participating in e-commerce is realizing that IT investments have become just as critical as any other operating expense. NEMRA's Bergson says reps must realize that updating/upgrading computer equipment is a new expense, just like buying a new car. Lee Guard, T.F. Farmer Co., Greensboro, N. C., maintains that reps don't have any choice but to move forward and make these investments. "It's imperative to stay up with the times, and that means doing whatever it takes to stay ahead of your manufacturers and customers," he says To back up this philosophy, the agency has equipped each of its employees with a state-of-the-art computer, monitor and printer for their personal use at home. As former NEMRA Chairman Tom Farmer, the firm's principal, explains it, part of the thinking behind the firm's decision to commit more than $75,000 to their more than 30 employees was a desire to keep them ahead of the learning curve: "We've been computerized in our company for 20 years. Over the years, we've developed all of our own software. I would have to say that we have the most extensive computer operation of any rep firm in the country. Everybody in our office has a workstation and a personal computer on their desk. As time moved along and we saw more and more uses for PCs, we felt it was important to increase everyone's association with the computer and what it could do.

"Near the end of 1997, we gave everyone in our organization the best, most up-to-date personal computer we could get our hands on. This computer would be for their personal use at home, in addition to what they used in the office. We set up the PCs for them here in the office and all they had to do was take them home and plug them in. We have people working all day long on all the Microsoft platforms that we use. By having the same equipment and software at home, they can experiment on their own and bring back shortcuts, new ideas and solve their own problems. All the time in the office now I see people helping each other-without calling upon systems support."

Another rep got an informational Web site up and running so that his company would be the first in his market to have an online presence. The Web site for TRJ Marketing Group, Inc., Lewisville, Texas, www.trjmarketing.com, offers customers a succinct summary of the company's product line, value-added services, and e-mail contacts. "I wanted to communicate the fact that I can compete with anyone, anywhere," says Tom Jones, the company's principal. "My feeling is that the first one in wins. If you don't take the step, then you're going to fall by the wayside. I use it as an electronic means of communicating a message. It's my electronic line card."

As Jones looks back at all his agency has been able to accomplish in this arena in such a short period of time, he has this advice for other reps who might be contemplating a similar effort: "Stay off, I don't need any more competition."