Making the 'Net an Asset to Your Shop

Nowadays, everywhere you go, there's all of this talk about the Internet, Web sites, the New Economy

What you really want to do, though, is concentrate on your woodworking, get the projects through the shop and collect your money. Can all of this computer stuff really make a difference?'

It sure can. If the Internet is not already prompting changes in your shop, it will down the road, and those days may be closer than you think. The Internet can help you do things differently both internally (how you operate your shop) and externally (how you deal with the outside world). So if you aren't online yet, you should be!

Online avenues
While this phrase has been used a lot, the Internet is like a huge system of connecting roadways some wide and rapid, some narrower and slower.

Our shop has discovered and is using the Web it's a complex and very fast way of sending, receiving and finding information. You want sources for bird's eye maple? Go online. Need lighting? Contact the manufacturer's Web site and check it out there. Want to communicate with the architect regarding that ceiling scribe detail in the 4th floor lunch room?

Send her a polite e-mail!

Many shops are finding that the Internet really can help with finding information. The ever-changing world of appliances is one example many manufacturers now have their own sites, listing updated and detailed cut-outs along with installation information and often with good quality drawings too. Our shop has located oddball hardware, and even sometimes instructions on how to use it. You can source a wide variety of materials such as veneer and solid woods and some suppliers are beginning to use their sites to list their inventories, which can be very useful.

For us, the Internet is fast becoming our own, internal Yellow Pages a place where we can locate resources; and we can easily search nationwide, if we need to.

Lots of shops are using e-mail as a way of communicating, both internally and externally.

Bigger companies are finding that putting out a message to employees through the computer is a fast and easy way to get to everyone. For a smaller shop, using e-mail to communicate with clients is faster than the mail, yet still a little more formal than the telephone or voice-mail.

A few shops are beginning to send and receive drawings details and information via e-mail. This can be cumbersome, frustrating and time-consuming if you don't have the right software in place, so before you start doing it, you may want to experiment a little. The design community is ahead of us here, and we'll be seeing more of this in the future.

Using the Web to receive software upgrades is also something that's gaining use. If you're using or contemplating using any kind of cutlisting programs perhaps to help you through the grind of layout and detailing then being hooked up to the Internet is only a matter of time.

Web site creation
You may want to think about creating a Web site for your shop. This can be basic and inexpensive if you keep it simple, and it can be a great resource for your potential clients.
Your site should be an unthreatening place for those clients. It can be an easy way for customers to contact you without having to deal with a salesperson or a phone call. They can go online and see who you are and what you do and they don't have to be in that sometimes uncomfortable showroom situation to check you out. At our shop, we've had people go online and hook into our site while they're talking on the phone to us!

You can even put your Web site together yourself, since there is more and more software out there to help you create a site. And if you want to learn more about the how-to details, you can take a class in Web site design perhaps even an on-line class.

It helps if you're computer savvy, but if you find all this technology intimidating, another option is to hire someone to create a Web site for you. Supply them with some information about who you are and what you do, maybe some photos of your work shoot it professionally if you can and let them go to work.'

If you see a site that you like, contact the person who put it together the "Webmaster," as this person is often called. The Webmaster's name is usually posted somewhere on one of the site's pages. Best of all, this person doesn't need to be local, since the work can be done and downloaded from the Webmaster's computer, from anywhere in the country.

Your Web site can function just like a brochure. You can put information in there about your products, your shop and your staff; if you make it simple and easy to navigate, your potential clients will feel good about wanting to work with you.

You may also want to add pages that are informative new trends in color, interesting facts about particular veneers, ecology or "green" issues to give your sight "added value."

Unlike a printed brochure, you can change and update your own Web site at any time. If you're smart and careful when you're setting things up, you use a digital camera and insert photos of work in progress whenever you want. You may want to show off the details of that fancy, beaded inset kitchen as you're building it, even before it goes to the paint shop!

Watch out
Finally, a couple of words of warning. Your Web site can be a place that attracts both shoppers and tire-kickers just like the Yellow Pages. Some shops want that; that's how they get their work. Others thrive on referral and repeat work and in this case, dealing with shoppers is time that might be better spent.

Providing on-line access for your employees can have its problems, too. It's a big temptation for some people to get onto the Internet and go to non-work-related areas it's easy to be sucked into browsing sites that are interesting. Like surfing TV channels, before you know it, half an hour's gone by. And like the telephone, it can be misused as a personal communication device. You may want to set up some clear ground rules before giving your staff unlimited Internet connections.

Next Column: Finding New Markets for Your Work