Chris’ Corner

Give Me E-Business, but Hold the E

You know what? I want my e-business sans "e." I know that's like saying, "I'll have a chicken sandwich, hold the chicken," nonsensical, but I'd like my e-business minus "e" just the same.

What does this all mean? In my last editorial I harpooned Bell Atlantic IT for being disorganized and poorly integrated, but the principle I proposed can be applied to any business, not just the Bell Atlantic bozos. "Get your IT act together or lose customers," should be every CEO's mantra.

Today, IT is inextricably bound to customer service. I challenge you to cite a non-trivial case where adequate customer service can be done without IT. Have you ever called a credit card company and tried to get your account information only to be told their system is down and could you call back? I'm sure you have, and it's frustrating beyond belief.

So now we can access the Web 24x7, shopping to our little hearts content. Which one of us hasn't had the urge to order a book at 3:00 a.m.? Aren't we glad that Amazon.com is there to sate our appetite for early morning book shopping? I just don't know how I ever survived when I couldn't buy stuff in the middle of the night!

But, I digress. The salient point here is not that we can shop till we drop, 24x7, but that we should be able to find out everything about our transactions, shopping or otherwise, any time of the day or night. I may be able to call my credit card company at three in the morning, but then again, maybe not. That's because it's expensive to staff call centers 24x7 and few companies have the resources to do this. The question is why should they have to?

The power of the Internet, and the business it enables, is not just e-commerce but the ability to provide the ultimate experience to your customers. Instead of investing in increased staff levels to man call centers 24x7, invest in IT systems that allow your customers to get what they need, anytime they need it. Certainly this need could be the intense desire to buy a book at 3:00 a.m., but it could just as easily be the need to know just how much credit I have left when I'm on a winning streak in Las Vegas at 3:00 a.m.

So why do I want my e-business minus the "e"? Well, if you believe Steve Riordan, Deloitte Consulting principal and e-business services leader, all business will eventually become e-business. If you get anything from reading Amy Rowell's interview with Steve in this issue, it should be the fact that the best basis for e-businesses are sound business processes and sound information systems.

Therefore, if you have systems in place that allow your customer service representatives to easily check a customer's credit limit when they call on the phone, how hard is it to make that same service available over the Internet? Not very hard at all, I would propose.

Conversely, if your own customer service reps have a hard time finding information a customer wants when they call on the phone, how hard will it be to make that information available to the customer over the Internet? Mighty difficult, I surmise.

I know these statements sound pretty cavalier, but honestly, if you have sound business processes backed by sound information systems to begin with, it all comes down to implementation issues. Forget the security problems. Forget the privacy issues. All of these can be dealt with if you have a sound foundation, but all the e-business technology in the world won't help you if you have shaky information systems and convoluted business processes.

So give me my e-business without the "e" and remember what Harry Belafonte said, "House built on a weak foundation, will not stand. Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. Oh no!"