Customer Interface: Easy Doesn’t It

Sure, you can take it slow when it comes to the Web. But the only thing coming to those who wait is likely to be anonymity.

Corporate America is nervous. The rank and file are starting to make a lot of noise about this World Wide Web thing. It’s not normal. It wasn’t in the coursework at business school. It has no proven ROI.

You may belong to one of those grand-old-man bureaucracies that require three forms in quadruplicate to requisition a new coffee machine. If so, you face the task of educating your CEO, your CFO, your VPs and your directors. Not fun.

Perhaps you should drag all the aging white men from their corner offices for a week of Outward Bound training. Watch them learn teamwork while dangling over river gorges. See them face the threat of being left behind unless they acquire new skills — in a hurry. How else will they learn that the Web is no longer an experiment but a competitive weapon?

In the World Wide Web Simulator

Maybe they’re waiting for the WWW Simulator. Submit your Web site design and implementation plan to this rule-based, artificially intelligent interpretation of 34 million people. It thinks about it for a while, then spits out a one-year analysis. Will your site get lots of hits or be a ghost town? Generate sales or cause very unpleasant PR? It’s all done automatically and with no risk of public humiliation.

Until such a thing exists, upper management will remain apprehensive about investing too much energy (read: money) into this Web thingy. Some see it as a flash in the pan. Some see it as hype only. Some see it as changing too fast to be a safe investment. Some just don’t get it.

In the Conference Room

“Yes, we know we need a Web site. Our competitors have them; we should too,” says the VP of corporate affairs. “But let’s not get carried away. We can put up pages for the investment community and the press, but there’s no need to do real transactions.”

“But we should offer something for sale, don’t you think?” says the VP of sales. “Just to see if people will buy. Just a handful of items. You know, test market it.”

The VP of marketing pipes up, “This is a great way to produce brochures. We can publish everything electronically, and people can download it at almost no cost. At least let’s put our product line card up there.” Seeing the CEO frowning, he adds, “And the annual report, of course.”

“I think we should let other companies take the arrows for us,” rumbles the CEO. “I authorize sticking a toe in the water; but this company didn’t become a stalwart of American business by acting goofy over technology. We can do a photo shoot and video of me next Thursday so people know I support the future. But it’s the future, gentlemen. It’s not today.”

In the Short Term

As a result, corporate America’s Web sites offer the annual report, the company’s history, a list of places to buy products and a job opportunities page. These elements belong on every Web site, to be sure. But the Big Audience is being ignored.

Hundreds of people call in every month asking investor relations about the state of the stock. Thousands call asking about employment opportunities. But millions call, mail and walk in to buy products. Why ignore them? Whatever you sell, give them another way to buy!

“Oh we will,” says the CEO, “in the fullness of time when we are sure this is the right approach. Surely there’s no harm in putting up a nice, welcoming home page and working our way into selling later.” No, there’s nothing wrong with that approach. Except that it’s going to be a lot more expensive.

In the Red

Let’s say GigantiCorp puts up a Web site with all the usual suspects: About the Company, Latest Press Releases, etc. To that they add a fully integrated, full-product-line order-processing system. The attention they garner is significant. The Wall Street Journal calls. Time magazine writes an article that makes people forget about its “cyberporn” debacle. People flock; they like what they see, and they send their friends.

In the scenario the CEO favors, GigantiCorp puts up a Web site with no products to buy (or — even worse — only a few, which incorrectly sets customers’ expectations), and the results are much different. The public announcement of this site draws loyal customers and proactively interested prospective customers, but they find something missing — fulfillment.

Lacking fulfillment, these assertive shoppers wander off. They might bookmark the page. They might paste yellow stickies to their terminals for later visitation. But more likely they’ll simply surf to greener pastures. And the amount of advertising, sweepstakes, discounts and rebates required to get them back will be enormous.
In the News

The absorbing question is whether it is better to be first or best. Once, being on the Web at all was newsworthy. When the Bank of America (www.bofa.com) went live it made all the papers. Today — and especially for those who are planning for tomorrow — this is no longer true.

Some corporate Web sites have been up for more than a year. Some are on their third and forth iterations. The first link on the original Bank of America home page said, “PAYMENTS.” They have since come up with a kinder, gentler approach, inviting you to “Build Your Own Bank.” But as progressive as this is (take a look at The Microsoft Network at www.msn.com for a wonderful version of page customization), it is now outclassed by Security First Network Bank (www.sfnb.com).

Security First is a full-service, no-bricks-and-mortar bank open 24 hours by seven days with checking accounts, ATM access, electronic bill paying and certificates of deposit. Mark Twain Banks (www.marktwain.com) is now selling DigiCash’s e-cash online. Bank of America has some catching up to do.

In the Details

Is it possible to respond to this constant competitive pressure? Just ask AT&T and Sprint. They spend millions of dollars branding the “You Will” message into people’s brains and getting Candice Bergen to smile knowingly into the camera. But the mastery is behind the scenes. Marketing says “Let’s roll out a new calling circle program next week to counter the competition!” And they do — with the emphasis on “program”.

When a telecommunications company throws its marketing weight into the fray, IS is pressed into action. The ability to code a new billing system in a matter of days is what gives these companies the ability to compete. You can do no less. All companies are becoming information brokers. The better the broker, the better the chances of keeping customers and finding new ones.

In the Lead

That means posting information about your industry in general and about your products, procedures and policies in particular. Clients will stay loyal if they can use the Web to track their dealings with you more easily than they can with your competitor. UPS is offering package tracking to show FedEx they’re not the only game in town. But you can find out about a UPS package only after it has been delivered; FedEx tracks in real time. That’s enough of an edge to keep UPS buying antacids and having them delivered overnight.

If the CEO is getting ribbed about it at the golf club, and you have no choice but to put up a Web site ASAP, take your predicament to the public. Rather than put up large “Under Construction” signs everywhere, invite people into the “Under Discussion” section. They, not the CEO, are the end users. Ask them what they want on their GigantiCorp Web site. They’ll tell you.

But if you can avoid the incomplete Web site, do so. Walt Disney didn’t want his namesake pleasure park opened to the public with just one ride. He wanted people rushing around, eager to see what else there was and delighted when they found it. Variety. Choice. Excitement about what’ s around the corner.

You say your CEO still wants to avoid transaction processing on the Web? Time to check out www.outwardbound.org and hope for the best.