How Companies Use Extranets

The goal of an extranet is to streamline communications between your business and external clients, customers or partners. Beyond these general goals, however, different industries may use extranets in very different ways. Consider some of the following examples:

Manufacturing. From airlines to automobiles, the manufacturing industry uses extranets to provide access to product manuals and technical specifications. Extranets make it easy to share and transfer this type of information, which can run to thousands of pages in print format. Also, those with access can update information, flag problems and issue warnings — all instantly, in a self-serve format.

Financial services. Banks, brokerages and other institutions use extranets to perform a variety of transactions, covering everything from consumer banking to check-clearing services. Even the Internal Revenue Service has developed an extranet that allows tax-processing companies to submit forms over the Internet.

Online catalogs. Suppliers, especially wholesalers, use extranets to make online catalogs available to vendors. Extranets also allow suppliers to offer discounts to favored clients and to discount items that are overstocked, being phased out or proving hard to move. The extranet’s ability to display up-to-date inventory data streamlines the purchasing process for both buyers and sellers.

Web design and development. Web-design firms use extranets to give their clients easy access to ongoing design and development projects. Used correctly, this type of extranet can make the development process more efficient, keep the client informed and involved, and keep the project on time and on budget.

Publications. Extranets provide an easy way for publishers to distribute editorial calendars and accept work from authors. Publishers can also combine an extranet with existing content management and workflow applications, allowing them to integrate remote bureaus, freelance authors and contractors, and other offsite team members.

Public relations. Like publishers, public-relations firms often use extranets to manage their content workflow. Extranets are also useful for publishing late-breaking news and updates, making them instantly available to reporters, investors and analysts.

Customer service. Many firms now allow customers to log in and view customized account information, track orders, and communicate with sales and service staff. As a growing number of firms adopt online customer-service tools, more customers expect to find these tools when they deal with a company.

Training and education. Extranets allow online training firms to provide course materials and other resources to their clients. Many schools and universities now conduct at least some of their courses over extranets, allowing students to earn credits regardless of their location or their ability to attend classes on a regular schedule.

Project management. For businesses that employ contractors, an extranet-based project-management system provides an easy-to-use solution for keeping all the players on track. Such systems also allow in-house teams to monitor external vendors who can use the extranet to report their progress.

Supply chain. From automatic ordering to inventory analysis, extranets can be critical in supply-chain management — regardless of a company’s size. This is especially true as “just in time” management practices require firms to keep inventory data as current and accurate as possible.

Virtual sales. In some cases, sales teams can initiate and close deals more effectively when they are able to give hands-on demonstrations via an extranet. Extranets allow sales representatives to deliver interactive presentations regardless of a customer’s location, and they reduce a company’s sensitivity to traditional sales challenges such as industry trade-show schedules and tight travel budgets.