Like many small-company founders, Stephen Siegel used to be part executive, part customer-service rep. His eight-employee company, Chicago-based UV Process Supply, sells mail-order technical supplies to companies that use ultraviolet light in printing. When customers had equipment problems, they'd call Siegel, who has worked in the industry for about 20 years.
That was great for customers but not so great for Siegel, who often spent one-third of his day taking calls. Today Siegel estimates that his time on the phone has been reduced by about 85%, thanks to his business's extensive use of a fax-on-demand program. Customers calling the fax-on-demand service can choose from hundreds of documents that cover all kinds of technical questions. UV Process Supply has integrated the service into its catalog: each product description includes instructions for obtaining additional information by fax.
Fax-on-demand services let callers use their telephone keypads to have selected documents automatically sent by fax. The technology has been around since the late 1980s; however, prices are becoming ever more affordable for small companies. At least one manufacturer advertises a product for less than $1,000.
Most of the documents in UV's database are product-information files that the company developed and that reside on UV's local area network. Other documents -- such as product instruction manuals -- must be scanned in, often by faxing them to a computer equipped with a fax board. Using the fax-on-demand service costs UV's customers nothing, except for the toll call. That's because Siegel views the information the company provides as an integral part of its sales process, largely replacing a sales and technical-support staff. Originally, it was hard to coax customers to try his service; today Siegel says the system averages 15 to 20 calls a day, and all but the most technophobic customers use it.
Even after several years, the fax-on-demand system needs occasional tweaking: after a recent move Siegel realized that every document in the database still sported his old address! But on the whole, the system has created only one quandary for Siegel, one unknown to most company builders: what to do with all his free time.