After four decades of watching the progress of manufacturing I applaud the unsurpassed quality of today's products. At the same time, I grow more and more uneasy with the new business process solutions inserted between the manufacturer and customer, both B2B and B2C. For example, consider the perplexing popularity of the new customer "service" tools whose goal is to eliminate any human contact. Why is it that at a time when products have never been better that customer service has never been worse? You must remember I had the misfortune of entering the adult world when it was expected that a human face and a helping hand served paying customers. Today there are business consultants applying software tools dedicated to undoing all that in the name of customer service. You know the drill -- most business calls of inquiry begin with reaching a machine voice or a recording. Too many minutes later, after satisfying that customer service system (instead of your needs), you find there is no way of reaching human intelligence. Have these wasted minutes ever been considered in the national industrial productivity studies? Then there's customer service (or disservice) via the Internet. Have you ever tried to find a company phone number on a Web page and succeeded? If you have, please accept my congratulations. Then there's the question of tiny, illegible type size and strange colors that defy legibility. Some Web pages seem bent on detracting from substantial brand images built at great expense in non-e-business venues. Next there's the question of e-mail customer service inquiries -- a serious question. New data gathered by the research firm of Jupiter Media Matrix, New York, discloses yet another paradox. While customer service response time by e-mail has become much faster, the percentage of no responses have increased as well! In February Jupiter surveyed 225 U.S. companies and found that 38% replied in 6 hours. That compares with 20% in last September's survey. The number of representatives that responded within a day was the same in both studies -- a dismal 54%. A most discouraging finding was that the number of companies that did not reply rose -- from 19% in September to 24% in February. It should come as no surprise that customer service satisfaction has dropped since 1994 in almost every part of the economy, adds the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. (It compiles the American Customer Satisfaction Index.) Obviously the whole goal of the Internet is to create business efficiencies by eliminating the human element wherever possible. For the historically minded, the goal is a replay of the telephone automation ploy that gave the customer the job that operators once performed. Now, as e-business matures, will its participants recognize (gasp!) that some of the human contact that used to be at the center of business processes may need to be replaced? "The next step in developing B2B Web sites will be to insert people where it makes sense," asserts Ken Crafford, CTO, FutureNext Consulting, McLean, Va. He calls it the next big software challenge. According to Crafford, e-business solutions have focused on creating efficiencies using the Internet end-to-end. "But what if a client wants to return merchandise? Should it be returned to a physical store, a mailing address, or a manufacturer? What happens if a person's credit goes on 'hold' because of a foul-up in returning merchandise? In these instances, the e-commerce site needs to contact that person via telephone. These can be sensitive issues and should be handled properly. The bottom line is that an end-to-end e-business needs software to deliver the same kind of services that brick-and-mortar operations have been good at." He says few software solutions have been developed that address the issue of proper human intervention. Getting a person on the phone is only part of the challenge. Once you've made contact, it may be with personnel that is empowered to little more than to refer you to the Web site or perhaps connect you back into the automated system. And what about the routine announcement that precedes contact with the human -- "this call may be recorded to ensure quality?" First, it wastes the caller's time; secondly it tells the employee that the company doesn't trust him or her; thirdly the caller gets the feeling that the company is not interested in solving a customer service problem -- instead the recording is being made to merely demonstrate that the company fulfilled its legal requirements. Is that customer service? What is the point of using the latest technology to create an anti-customer, anti-employee environment? Much has been claimed about the savings of using a new customer service technology and methods. But at what cost? How do you want your problems to be resolved?