Elkay Manufacturing is testing an online system that will provide order status and inventory information to its customers and reps.

Elkay Connect will be offered as an option on the company's Web site, accessible to those who register with a password and password approval.

Customers and reps can obtain timely data comparable to what in the past has been available only to Elkay's customer service staff. This will include order history, current open orders and inventory, refreshed daily. A collection of bulletins and other information will also be accessible.

A customer's branch personnel can view only the activities and orders of that branch, while participants located at central headquarters have access to all order activity.

"When we mapped the route through which our customers' questions were being answered, we found there was some non-value-added activity," said John Heilstedt, executive vice president/sales and marketing at Elkay. Ultimately, this program will free up some of Elkay's customer service people to work on less routine questions and problems, he added.

Elkay Connect is being tested with one rep and two customers, who were selected based on their knowledge, technology orientation, volume and business approach, Heilstedt said.

"Response has been very good," he said. "What surprised us is the number of individuals at certain locations for whom passwords are requested. In some cases we may have expected two to four people to be authorized to participate, but the company is requesting six to eight passwords. That shows their recognition of the potential of this product."

No pricing information will be available through Elkay Connect, but registered users will be able to access shipping dates and identify carriers, said Alan Danenberg, director/marketing services at Elkay.

"This does not replace the rep, but it makes it easier to get information without having to call the rep," Danenberg said.

"If something should come up after business hours, our customers can get access to the same information the rep would have, except for pricing," he said.

The company is in the process of approving all the hardware and software aspects of the program and is asking for feedback from the customers and reps participating in the test.

"Like most things on the Internet, this is kind of dynamic," Heilstedt said.

Elkay plans to launch the program early this year with some direct-mail solicitation to a large number of its major customers. This will include an explanation of the program and sign-up protocols.

The company expects to see rapid adoption of the program because it involves no cost to or requirements of the customer other than to provide names and passwords. Elkay's concern will be to maintain security so that customers have access only to their own data.

"This has nothing but positive potential for us in allowing all the people involved in our channel of distribution to use their time more productively," Heilstedt said. "You won't have to make four phone calls to get the answer to one thing."