Internet technologies have become the heart of the corporate IT effort. As such, they are intimately connected with customer care and relationship management efforts.
“What’s happening is the Internet and the availability of the new technologies is causing companies to create strategies around them,” says Albert Nekimken, senior analyst at INPUT, a market research company in Vienna, Va. “Vendors are telling me they are being used not just to solve a technology problem, but also as part of the companies’ strategic management team–advising on what ought to be done.” Customers are building the quality of advice into their vendor assessment process.
For example, Barry Bryfon, technology development engineer at Intermountain Health Care, in Salt Lake City, says he defines his customer service requirements before signing any contract. “I’ve been in this game long enough to know that if you don’t do that, you don’t get what you ask for,” he says. Bryfon says he’s been “increasingly happy” with his Novell Inc. software.
What goes into the contract? “We expect when we have a problem we should get someone working on it quickly,” and Bryfon escalates quickly on any problem. So far it’s working. “I’ve never yet had to whip out a contract. It doesn’t get to that point.”
To guarantee their own systems’ reliability, many customers are building in the kind of reliability formerly associated with mainframes and corporate telephone networks. That architecting can be difficult unless the products that go into the Internet solution offer good capacity-planning tools. Databases and servers have them, says Laurie Orlov, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc., in Cambridge, Mass., but much networking gear doesn’t.
On this important metric of Internet customer service, says Orlov, companies such as Cisco Systems Inc. have yet to provide an adequate response. “Good customer service from technology vendors must include better tools for simulating the high performance requirements of an Internet commerce environment,” she says, such as the kind of tools routinely found in Oracle Corp. databases and on Sun Microsystems Inc. servers.
This dramatic increase in the reliability requirement has caused a surge of outsourcing, says Geri Speeler, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc., in Stamford, Conn. Customers “expect enormous redundancy, good security management…that’s why we’re seeing more e-mail outsourcing now than we used to,” she says.
Smaller firms are increasingly willing to outsource, adds Nekimken of INPUT. While the size of the average outsourcing contract rose sharply in the third quarter of 1998, to $269 million from $130 million in the previous quarter, he says, the median value of those contracts actually fell 20%, to $50 million from $63 million. Those figures relect “the growing number of smaller contracts from a wider variety of midsize companies,” according to Nekimken.
Web sites empower customers to do most of their own customer service, but they must be integrated with the legacy system, servicing structure, and telephony environment, says Donna Fluss, a research director in customer service and support strategies at Gartner Group. “The sites aren’t separate, and all these sites bring in sales, marketing, and servicing activities–customers want to bring it all together.”
The key question remains, however, which Internet vendors are delivering the most in terms of customer service? Users say their vendors are delivering, or they simply don’t remain their vendors any longer.
“They expect the best service they can possibly receive,” concludes Fluss. “That may not be what they’re receiving, but that’s what they’re looking for.” //
Dana Blankenhorn has covered computing since 1983 and now edits a-clue.com, a free e-mail newsletter on electronic commerce, from his home-office in Atlanta. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].