People believe some crazy things about what the Internet can do for them.

And many online hucksters reinforce these beliefs by making outrageous promises. Yet, there are genuine advantages to using the Internet for business that sometimes get lost in the hype.

As a builder, here are four things you should absolutely use the Internet for—they'll save time, effort and money once you get them set up:

1. Help people on and off the web know where to get more information about you.

With simple text ads on search engines, such as Google, Yahoo and MSN—or with display ads on construction-related websites—you can let customers who are looking for your services know where your website is. Talk about targeted advertising! Put your web address on your trucks and in your newspaper ads, and you'll give people something that's easier to remember than a phone number. Plus, your website is available 24/7.

2. Let customers interact with you in a non-threatening way.

When customers are in research mode, they may not be ready for a phone conversation. The Internet allows them to gather information at their own pace, and your website allows them to get to know you before making contact. Make sure your website has plenty of words and images that create trust and encourage communication.

3. Automate customer service.

A website with a short contact form to fill out can help you capture customer information and turn it into leads. E-mails sent automatically can remind your customers of appointments, inspections or routine maintenance. Customer management software can help you keep track of customer and project information, as well as what e-mails you've sent them. All this automation can give you and your staff more time to focus on customer projects.

4. Provide text, images or tools on your website that help customers use your services.

You may have used the "configurator" on every automobile manufacturer's site that helps you build and price the car of your dreams. Online applications like this help get customers excited about products or services. They can be as simple as a tool that gives customers an idea of the right size heat pump for their home—or as complex as an online application that allows customers to design their own home floor plan.

Using the web requires creativity and planning. If you're already using the Internet to acquire customers and streamline your business, great. I encourage you to continuously improve your processes until you have the most efficient system possible. If you're not using all of these Internet tools in some way, add them to your marketing plan now. You're only limited by your imagination.

Construction Business Owner, August 2007