Communication with customers is a source of competitive edge. You can improve your products and services if you learn from your markets. Before it was acquired, Patrick McDonnell was CEO of a small manufacturing company in Andover, Mass. He describes how his company benefited from staying in touch--electronically.

"Information technology lets small businesses communicate with customers and suppliers without regard to time, place, and sometimes even cost. Historically, that capability was limited to large companies because only they could afford to have worldwide marketing teams. Even when the company had only 20 employees, E-mail allowed us to communicate with customers all over the world--without having to travel. That's important because we were selling one of our products in Europe and Asia, and one of our strategic partners has offices in Munich and Singapore.

"Using teleconferencing, we held an international sales meeting with our Canadian partner and gathered marketing information from customers around the globe. The data told us we needed to add performance capabilities and modify some features in our emissions-monitoring instruments--features we had considered unimportant. With the help of the Internet and E-mail, we were also able to form stronger partnerships. And with strategic partnerships, small businesses can develop vertically integrated teams--like ours with the Canadian company--that have the flexibility and versatility necessary to compete with large businesses."