Almost all desktop PCs are now networked, so users have easy access to data held elsewhere in the organisation. But, when it comes to portable PCs, the situation is a little different ? here, most of them function as separate, disconnected islands of data.
Elsewhere in this issue we look at some of the most common ways of overcoming this problem (see Products in Perspective on Remote Access, page 140). But there are extreme cases where users need instant access to the very latest data while moving around ? in environments like warehouses, factories and hospitals, sometimes nothing less than continuous connection to the network will do.
This is where radio or infrared-based forms of wireless network connection come into their own. At Ayr Hospital nurses can enter patient details direct into the central computer from the patient?s bedside. Meanwhile, in Bookpoint?s book warehouses, orders are assembled and dispatched by staff wielding radio-linked scanners hooked up to a PC/mainframe network.
But first, the Internet. This most hyped of all technologies is moving beyond the uncritical honeymoon phase, with businesses now demanding that it earns its keep just like any other technology. Kitchenware company Scotts of Stowe, Blackwell?s books and a leading Spanish bank are all attempting to use the Internet in their efforts to improve one of the most critical factors of every successful business ? that of good customer service.
Internet costumer service:
Customer service has been the maxim of every efficient business for the past decade or so. But the message that looking after customers is the key to successful trading has been slow to arrive on the Internet.
Many businesses weighing up the pros and cons of trading over the Web have been preoccupied instead with bottom-line factors, assessing the Internet more for its potential to cut sales and distribution costs. Some see online business as a means of talking more directly to customers, but often in terms of collecting information about buying habits, or substituting a Web page for a telephone helpline as a way of providing information about the company.
So far, few companies have cottoned on to the notion that the Internet can be used to provide the kind of enhanced, personalised customer service that is the marketeer?s dream. Even in theory it?s not hard to see the possibilities. For instance, keeping track of both stated customer preferences and actual customer buying patterns on an individual basis could provide businesses with substantial marketing information.
Blackwell?s Online Bookshop, for example (see page 54), is building a system that it hopes will assist in compiling lists of appropriate titles for customers. So, if a customer has ordered, say, two books on roses, Blackwell?s wants to be able to use its data on customer buying patterns to suggest books on pruning or ornamental water features as the next most likely purchases.
However, tuning systems to the needs of customers is not as easy as it seems, and this is one of the reasons it is not yet widespread. What?s more, some services are more difficult than others to get right, such as ordering fresh food over the Internet ? though that hasn?t deterred most of the large supermarket chains from trying. Tesco is currently running trials in north London, and both Sainsbury?s and Somerfield have pilot schemes. In the last two cases, though, it is notable that the trial customers are staff at technology companies ? Hewlett Packard and IBM, respectively ? who will be comfortable with the notion of online ordering.
There is, potentially, a greater problem than delivery and that is handling customers efficiently. Most companies? systems are tuned to the internal processes of the organisation, such as product or function, and it is difficult to turn the information needed by such processes into an easy-to-use, customer-focused system. In theory, a customer should need no more than their name and address to be able to deal with an organisation; in reality, they often need to remember complex information, such as customer reference numbers or product numbers ? data demanded by the internal systems.
However, the flipside of this is that, because as consumers we?ve all become used to these cumbersome processes, it?s relatively easy to provide a service that customers will see as a step up from average. That?s certainly the view of Rob Bruce, marketing manager of Broadvision, whose One-to-One Web application is being used by Blackwell?s and other customers, including the Spanish bank, Banco Santander, which has launched a customised Internet banking service (see page 56). ?You don?t need to do very complicated things to please customers a lot,? says Bruce. ?Customers like even quite simple things, because they?ve never had them before.?
Providing really good customer service over the Internet largely depends on intangibles, such as branding. But, for those companies that get it right, the opportunity to build up a close, profitable relationship with customers, can be invaluable.
Indeed, regarding the Internet as a vast bargain basement could prove to be the undoing of many businesses. In online trading, just as in the regular kind, quality and customer service are likely to be the long-term differentiators.
Blackwell?s is usually thought of as a long-established university bookshop in Oxford but, since its foundation in 1879, its business has prospered from that base to the flourishing #500m group it is today.
In addition to its 80 retail bookshops, Blackwell?s specialises in supplying a full range of academic, medical, legal and technical books and periodicals to libraries and individual customers around the world. Going online is a natural extension of this mail-order business for Blackwell?s, which was early into the Internet market.
?Blackwell?s was one of the first commercial organisations online in the UK, in 1989, and has been selling books online since June 1995,? comments Herbert Kim, head of marketing and sales at Blackwell?s Online Bookshop. ?The Internet is a natural extension of our existing business and is seen as a way to serve a lot of Blackwell?s customers abroad.?
Initially, says Kim, the online facility was regarded as an additional service for custmers which needed relatively little investment from the group. But sales over the Internet have grown rapidly. ?With sales of #500,000 on an investment of virtually nothing, this is probably the most profitable return on any investment,? says Kim. ?So, this year, we have decided to invest a fair bit of money ? more than #1m ? to make this a really first-class bookshop.?
One of the key aspects of the online service is the access it gives customers to Blackwell?s database of books and periodicals. This covers the 150,000 titles directly stored in the Oxford shop, but will now be expanded to 1.2 million titles, with full bibliographic data about each. ?We will be making it easier for customers to find books, by giving them quick and easy ways to search the database,? says Kim. ?But there?s a lot more we can do as well. We can provide recommendations from Blackwell?s highly experienced staff on specific titles and, because we are a global company, we can deliver anywhere in the world. This means we will have global reach but local delivery ? that can?t be done by an average bookshop on the Internet.?
Also important is the ability to personalise the relationship between Blackwell?s and its customers. ?We chose the Broadvision engine because it offered the most flexibility,? says Kim. ?Blackwell?s sales reps don?t just sell books, they build up a profile of customer buying habits, and Broadvision will help in that mission by keeping track of buying and suggesting titles to customers. We believe this is the real cutting edge ? the attempt to personalise the service back to the end user.?
Developing good customer services over the Internet is sometimes a complex mix of online and traditional approaches, as Arq?s experiences have proved.
Arq is a Bath-based company specialising in online services for UK mail-order and catalogue companies keen to dip a toe into Web-based trading without major upfront investment.
Its main project is the Catalogue Online UK (Couk) Web site, which provides mail-order and catalogue companies with a number of services. These include a directory, where companies can post their details for a six-monthly fee of #100. The directory provides leads to the companies and enables individuals to request specific product catalogues.
Arq is also setting up a department store on the Web site ? due to go live in September ? which will provide a cheap means for traders to advertise a selected number of products without making a major investment in Web technology. It will cost them #10 a month to sell each product in this way, with a minimum cost of #600 ? 10 products for six months.
?The aim is to develop the ?everything? site for home shopping,? says William Pryor, Arq?s managing director. ?The directory provides an easy way for catalogue companies to get their feet wet online and work through the fear and doubt of using online services, while the cost of being in the department store is small potatoes compared with the cost of printing even the cheapest paper catalogue.?
Arq?s next stage in enticing traditional catalogue companies onto the Internet is to design a full bespoke online catalogue, which it has just done for tableware company Scott?s of Stow (www.scottsofstow.co.uk). Here, too, customer service is of prime concern: while the product catalogue on the site is straightforward, Arq has included several features aimed at personalising the experience. Once users have registered on the site to buy something, the shopping-cart feature logs their purchase. This means that the system builds up a ?shopping profile? so that, on future occasions, it can suggest items or special offers based on previous purchases.
?In the US, sites making serious money are those that allow surfers to contribute a bit of themselves,? says Pryor. ?We want to work towards building sites based on communities.? The next Arq project is an official site for the City of Bath that will include shop details alongside the many attractions of the city. ?We want to put shops into their context. Sterile shopping malls are just that ? sterile lists,? comments Pryor.
Banco Santander believes it will be the first bank in the world to offer its customers personalised online banking services. To help it achieve this it has installed Banca Supernet, an Internet banking service, which has been built with the Broadvision One-To-One application system on top of existing banking systems.
Santander is the leading financial group in Spain, with a net turnover last year of $951.7m, and it has major operations in the US and Latin America. Banca Supernet provides full branch service capabilities on the Internet, enabling users to access their accounts to conduct standard banking practices from their desktop as well as carrying out other transactions, such as transferring funds to other financial institutions.
In addition to its fully operational online service, Banca Supernet is customised to users? requirements. They can choose one of four different site ?styles? for the presentation of information, each defined by a different set of fonts, colours and style of the user. Within each of these styles, a further four options are available, enabling users to view first what they regard as most important, such as their credit-card balance, or the performance of particular companies on the stock market.
Additional options are due to be added to the service, such as an alert that will let the user know, either by email or phone, when something happens in their account, such as their balance dropping below $500.
Jorge Mata, head of multimedia banking at Banco Santander, says the single objective of the Internet banking service was to increase customer loyalty. And this is why the bank chose the Broadvision system, with its dynamic personalisation features that allowed the bank to tailor its services to customer needs.
One of the key components of Banco Santander?s online initiative is a single point of service for customers. The bank?s pledge is to answer email from the Internet in less than 24 hours. Customer requests will be responded to either by email or phone, depending on the request and the preferences of the customer.
Subject: Blackwell?s Online Bookshop
Activities: selling books and periodicals
Installation: Broadvision?s One-to-One
Uses: to run Blackwell?s global online book and periodicals service
Subject: Arq Activities
Activities: developing online services for UK mail-order and catalogue companies
Installation: Web site based on Icat?s electronic commerce system
Uses: entry point for mail-order and catalogue companies trying out online services
Subject: Banco Santander
Installation: Banca Supernet Internet banking service, based on Broadvision One-to-One
Uses: providing personalised online bankingSubject: Banco Santander
Installation: Banca Supernet Internet banking service, based on Broadvision One-to-One
Uses: providing personalised online banking
Internet Customer Service lessons:
1 Focus on the customer: too many services concentrate on the seller?s own processes, such as customer reference and product numbers.
2 You don?t need to make things complicated to please customers ? simple things can be very helpful, so go back to basics.
3 Keep processes straightforward ? but bear in mind the complex way different customer communities may overlap.
4 Ensure there?s a dialogue between yourself and your customers but, at the same time, keep a close track of real buying patterns ? there?s a difference between what customers say they do and what they actually do.
HP and Centrica are the first industry partners to sign up to the government's new Code
New ice grows faster but is also more vulnerable to weather and wind
With a crackdown on cheats is coming in November, PUBG rushes to fix matchmaking problems introduced in Update #22
New material uses carbon dioxide from the air to repair and reinforce itself