inside/out: Who's Developing Your E-business Site?

"The reality is this: In the same way there is no pausing in IT, there is no next big issue," writes Manny Fernandez in the Chairman's letter to the shareholders of Gartner Group, Stamford, Conn.., a technology consulting firm. He says there is a succession of big, interrelating issues, all of which include the fundamental need to better align IT and the business goals of the enterprise. The first issue in his list is devising E-commerce strategies.

Personal experience shopping on the Web convinces me there could be trouble brewing for IT managers working on E-commerce solutions. There is a marked contrast in the customer-friendliness among Web commerce sites. seems to relish business, providing easy-to-use interfaces, prompt service, and e-mail order status reports. IBM's Shop IBM Web site, on the other hand, is clunky, slow, and legalistic. leaves the impression that its site is created by retail-oriented merchants anxious to please and ready to help. IBM's site, by contrast, seems to have been created by lawyers concerned that IBM's rights are protected. ships in a few days; IBM e-mailed a confirmation saying the $39.95 "IBM Start-up for e-business" software package would ship 15 days after order placement. This schedule is enough to drive many to purchase a competitive product with faster delivery.

IBM's on-line ordering procedure is exceedingly cumbersome and the guidance on the site is confusing. At one point the customer is asked to agree to the

terms of the sale before placing the order. A new window opens divided into three horizontal frames. The top frame includes a statement that "PC product purchases are governed by the terms of the IBM PC Purchase Agreement." To process the order, the customer "must agree" to the terms. If the customer disagrees, the screen says, "your order will not be processed, however, you will be contacted by an IBM representative." How's that for an unwelcome threat? All this for a simple $40 software package.

The bottom frame contains the "agree" and "not agree" buttons and the center frame supposedly contains the agreement. However, it remains blank. After clicking the "agree" button, the Agreement text flashes briefly on the screen then the whole window closes and the ordering process continues. In as much as this order is for a single piece of software and is from the IBM Company, one can assume it is safe to continue.

For some reason, several days later IBM also mails a large 9 x 12 envelope containing an acknowledgement that says, "Please read carefully the attached Purchase Agreement." The computer-generated letter fails, however, to dispel the foreboding sense of bureaucracy and fear of getting involved with Big Blue. Yet the purpose of the software package ordered is to help a company sign up with IBM for its storefront on the Web.

Thirty years ago, IBM's attorneys controlled far too much of the company's interaction with its customers and prospects. After this Shop IBM experience, there is a strong indication the attorneys still hold much power.

The point is, when developing a site for e-commerce, how concerned are IT personnel with customer service? If they are rushing to put up a site for competitive reasons does that reduce the time and effort available for creating user-friendly site? Are people with direct customer-contact expertise involved in site design? Who has final say over the legalistic aspects of the site, lawyers or management?

Market research firm Meta Group told Inter@ctive Week, a trade publication, that by the year 2000, it forecasts that 35 percent of customer contact will be via nontraditional, electronic means.

When a Web site dips into company databases, IT professionals must be in charge of creating it. They also must make sure that people who understand how to deal with the customer are involved. E-commerce gives a company a new face to the public. And it needs to be a warm, friendly one to counter the inherently cold, methodical image of the computer. has the right ideas. IBM has some learning to do.

After 18 years in marketing and sales at IBM, Bob Diefenbacher founded Denbrook Systems Associates, an IT consulting firm based in Malvern, PA.