Going Out On An E-Limb

You've seen the ads. You've watched the commercials. You've witnessed the exhilarating -- or should we say frightening? -- run-up of the stock prices.

The Internet. The Web. E-commerce. Does all this represent, as Oracle Corp. President and COO Raymond J. Lane claimed this year at a Giga Information Group conference, "a new economy"? Maybe so. It's clear the Internet is leaving few, if any, businesses untouched. The Web is changing the way manufacturers deal with suppliers, distributors, customers, and workers. In our May 17 issue, in an article entitled "Piloting Companies in the Brave 'Net World," I reported that the Internet was to business what the splitting of the atom was to human history. Nothing would be the same henceforth. But has it really brought us a new economy? Or is what we're witnessing the creation and development of what ultimately will become just one more ingredient -- albeit an exciting and interactive one -- in the evolving mix of people, processes, and technology that makes up commerce? Stepping up to the plate and sucking in a deep breath of fresh, non-cyber-hyped air, I'll take an outrageous McGwirean swing to the opposite field here. Yes, we recognize that the Internet is a home run. But let's keep it in perspective. Consider the fact that the average commercial Web site had sales of just $39,000 last year, according to International Data Corp. In the larger undomed arena of the U.S. and world economy, that figure wouldn't even get you a bunt single. Many business processes and activities continue to depend on people, as opposed to sheer technology. Although it's hard to replace humans, believe it or not, many companies are trying to do so using the Web. Consider customer service. As if voice-response systems weren't bad enough with their tyrannical, Kafkaesque response "trees," now we have a new technology that lets companies hide behind their Web sites, avoiding any live contact with their customers. "We're now available to our customers on a 24/7 basis through our Web site," goes the typical boast. Sure, but if you're a customer navigating that Web site and you have a question and can't find where in the world to get it answered, you're stuck in dot.com hell. "Nothing on these Web pages really helps you with customer service," says Russell Brackett, senior partner at CSC Consulting Inc. in Waltham, Mass. "It's the second technology -- the first one was the voice-response unit -- for customer service organizations to hide behind." He says what's needed is an option for customers to get to a live person. "Companies are going to have to figure out how to get a person on the line quickly when a customer needs to talk to a human being," Brackett adds. One way to solve the problem is with a "click to call" feature that enables customers to reach a live support person, either interactively with a call back using Internet telephony software or with a traditional telephone call back. But few Web sites offer such support. And that's just one example. Many business people and consumers would rather strike a deal or buy a product through face-to-face contact with a live salesperson. "When I'm investing my money, I like to go there in person," says Brackett. "I like to connect that with a face. And it's not just older people who feel that way -- it works across the demographic sector." He recalls a current television commercial in which a customer calls his stockbroker and asks the difference between a market and a limit order. The customer ends up waiting indefinitely while the securities firm's computers remain silent. The lesson? Technology by itself won't cut it. Many consumers still will want to touch products, smell them, ask how they work, try them out, or, as in the case of a chair or a car, sit in them. They'll need human help, whether it's online or in-person. Furniture stores are not going to disappear. There still will be car dealerships and dealer service. Heavy-equipment manufacturers will continue to depend on their dealers and their dealers' contacts with construction firms to sell and repair their products. At the same time, of course, all manner of information about those products will be available to dealers and customers on the Web. The Web is a powerful technology. It's helping us to do our jobs faster, easier, better. Rather than creating a new economy, the Internet is making the role of people and processes even more important than ever. Don't let the cyber-hype junkies fool you. The 'Net needs us.

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