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What does it take to be successful in business-to-business e-commerce? Companies need to do solid architectural planning upfront, think through their IT infrastructures, build a good support team and be ready to change it within a short period of time. In the past, Tech Data has developed systems that we said would last five years, 10 years, even 15 years. But today, because of the Web, we're changing them in three to six months and reevaluating architectures twice a year. Many CIOs are not prepared for this.

We also recognise that our reseller customers [typically, computer retailers] have to compete with the companies in their lines of business. Our customers want to see how we take and process orders to make sure we are delivering products to them as efficiently as possible. As a result, we have to create cost-effective interfaces between us and the manufacturers that sell to us.

What is your internal architecture for supporting B-to-B e-commerce? We have a Web-based e-commerce application that allows businesses to order products [such as PCs, monitors, printers] from us. Through our EDI transaction set, we provide and can customize and build machine-to-machine interfaces between our systems and [those of] our customers. We also have an API set that allows our customers to program interfaces directly into our order-entry system. We offer a toolkit that allows customers to create their own Internet product catalogs with their logo. The transactions go through Tech Data's EDI.

Web orders are processed on more than one networking technology and are directly linked to the mainframe via proprietary technology.

How has e-commerce changed the relationships Tech Data has with its customers? We still conduct 75 per cent of our business through the call center. Even if we did 100 per cent of our business through e-commerce, we'd still talk to our customers. We want to maintain these relationships and provide quick, low-cost ways for our customers to order products.

Our customers can now shop for products through our online catalog, get prices and place orders through the Web. Or they can call their account rep to place an order, armed with a lot more data [that they've researched online], and the transaction takes less time than if they had done all the research and negotiation over the phone.

How can e-commerce companies differentiate themselves? Through innovation. Simply enabling a "siloed" e-commerce infrastructure-an infrastructure that exists on its own and is not tied to other business processes-is not enough. Companies need to incorporate e-commerce with the call center and the logistics and order-fulfillment systems.

You also need to keep moving ahead with your infrastructure. When I come out with a new release of our system, I immediately have to have the next two or three releases in the queue because my two or three major competitors are going to do the same shortly after me and vice versa. It's a continuous game of leapfrog. I'm constantly looking at and evaluating their offerings to glean ideas and make my own infrastructure better.

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