The Web Was Made for Customer Service

There has been a great deal of hype and media attention over the Internet, and it's entirely warranted: it's a major phenomenon, and one that will change the way business is done.

An analogy is drawn to the automated teller machine, a device that caught on slowly, and was often placed outside the lobby of a bank as a stepchild of the "real" business conducted by live tellers. While it was new and quirky at one time, it caught on with customers - to the point that a bank that refused to adopt the technology would lose customers to those that did.

Early Development of the WWW

The author describes five phases of development:

  1. Project Pages - Information about scientific projects was posted to individual Web pages within academic sites
  2. Personal Pages - In addition to posting research, individuals would post personal profiles that began as professional CVs and expanded to address leisure interests
  3. Product Pages - Information about individual products were posted to the Web, as online brochures that provided information in excess of that which could be delivered in a small print brochure
  4. Company Sites - In addition to providing a collection of product pages, companies provided ancillary customer support information, company profiles, annual reports, press releases, and other information into sites
  5. Participatory Sites - Features were added to sites to enable customers to send information to companies, such as product feedback or order information.

At this point, the emphasis was on generating traffic: how much attention a site attracted was the primary measurement of its success. To a lesser degree, companies considered the cost-savings of delivering information electronically rather than in print.

Sun Microsystems was among the first to calculate the cost benefit of the Web. For example, the company estimated that it had saved $1.3 million in the month of January 1995 - between the cost of media (disks and manuals) for delivering software updates and the personnel cost of phone staff to provide information that could be researched online. By January 1996, one year later, the estimate savings was $12 million per month.

The Next Wave: Customer Service

There is a problem with rising expectations: a customer may be delighted with the ability to obtain information 24/7 on the Web rather than via a telephone call during office hours, but that wears off. Before long, he's not satisfied because the site isn't easy enough to use. Then, he is dissatisfied because there is no "automatic" way for him to get an answer to a specific question without having to dig through the information.

This is especially true in the face of competition: one another Web site has a feature that users find helpful, they will expect it of yours, even if the other site is not in your industry. The site that delivers the greatest easy-of-use is perceived as providing better customer service, and will attract visitors, and later customers, away from those that do a worse job of it.

Keeping Up

And so, the task that companies face is not merely to get online, but to keep up with the competition, and pull ahead of them, in the face of customer demand. This is a break from the traditional IT perspective of providing resources to individuals based on the capabilities of the system.

In fact, it reverses the equation: you must now obtain system resources in order to meet the demands of the individuals who use it. Fail to do so, and you will cede their business to a competitor, a few mouse-clicks away, who will better meet their needs.