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HolidayBuyer's Guide
Tech Industry

Who will answer to customers?

As a result of the Internet, not only are areas of automation inside a corporation being improved and at cheaper levels, but, more importantly, areas that directly touch the customer are being automated.

A couple of weeks ago, in my column "Portal Mania," I argued that tomorrow's portals are today's corporate Web sites. And, as the Internet increasingly permeates corporate activity and becomes part of our work habits, corporate Web sites increasingly will become portals as well as destinations. I expect that, within two to three years, usage time on sites like Yahoo, Excite, and CNET will decrease, while usage time on corporate Web sites will increase.

The question, therefore, is why will corporate Web sites win out? There are numerous different dimensions and affinities that corporate Web sites address. While the Intranet dimension--in which each employee becomes an "operator"--has been written about ad nauseam, another dimension, the customer dimension--which blends both Internet functions, in some cases, and extranet functions, in others--has not.

The fact is, as a result of the Internet, the customer has been able to be serviced in unprecedented ways. Is it a surprise that, prior to the Internet, automation primarily focused on cost-saving functions that were internally oriented, rather than externally oriented or customer oriented? No, not really, because both back-office automation and front-office automation focus on making companies more efficient. And as a result of that efficiency, almost as a side-effect, the customer gets some benefit.

Granted, front-office automation applications that provide customer-support or help-desk functions (such as those provided by companies like Vantive, Remedy, or Scopus) indirectly have focused on the customer, but really, the primary drivers for these applications are to make companies more efficient in their customer-support functions--to cut down costs while also improving the customer support provided.

As a result of the Internet, not only are areas of automation inside a corporation being improved and at cheaper levels, but, more importantly, areas that directly touch the customer are being automated. Looking at the traditional patterns of automation, the most recent focus of client/server enterprise software has been in the areas of the supply chain, automating the process that connects vendors to their suppliers. While many supply chain applications provide Internet access and integration capabilities, what interests me is the demand or customer chain.

Unlike any other platform, the Internet enables the automation of the customer. While Wall Street acknowledges the power of the Internet as an advertising medium, given the accountability that can be associated with every advertising banner (number of impressions converted to click-throughs, number of click-throughs converted to transactions, etc.), very little has been done in terms of providing accountability with respect to customer interaction. This is the next area of automation. This is the next area of opportunity.

Danny Rimer writes regularly about the Internet in Marketwise.