Customer service, marketplaces dominate e-business conference

SAN JOSE -- A year or two ago, companies were trying to figure out what "e-business" was all about. But attendees at this week's eBusiness Conference and Expo here are now trying to answer practical questions about how to make it work, according to Chris Selland, vice president of e-Business Strategies Research and Consulting at Boston-based Yankee Group.

"I think it's getting a little less 'What do I need to do?' and a little more 'How do I do it?' " said Selland.

The themes that dominated the conference, said Selland, were customer relationship management and marketplaces, and how to make them work with e-commerce.

What people are realizing, he said, is that "you've got to integrate (your new systems) with your back end."

Customer Service

Steve Folkerts, manager and solutions consultant at Canadian Tire, has spent the past two years doing just that.

In 1998, Canadian Tire's customer service center information was centered around six databases. Folkerts was trying to consolidate that data to cut down on the time needed to access information.

"We were getting into the idea that the customer was going to have a lot more to say about how they wanted to be served," he said.

He wound up purchasing Seattle-based WRQ's Apptrieve host-integration system, which helped merge the six databases into one.

The simplified system let representatives focus more on the customer and less on the systems, said Folkerts.

"So all of a sudden I had a strong back end and an easy user interface," he said. "It was like my dream come true."

Now, with his Y2k work behind him, Folkerts plans to use the existing system to boost customer self-service on the Web.

A strong database is the most critical tool for good customer service, agreed John Kelly of eCoverage Inc., a San Francisco-based online insurance company.

When a representative can instantly bring up every interaction a customer has had with a company, it makes it more likely that representative can solve the customer's problem.

Kelly's company is now working on offering customers live, real-time chats with representatives on the Web, he said.

Bill Jenkins, information security analyst at Inovant, a wholly owned subsidiary of Visa International Inc., attended the eBusiness Conference to get some ideas on how to best serve his customers -- Visa employees searching the company's new intranet with questions about computer security.

"Most companies are trying to do more and more Web-based content for their employees," he said. "When people need to know something, they can just go out and find it."

Marketplace Questions

Another common topic of discussion at the conference was how to work within a marketplace, said Selland.

People are asking, " 'Is this going to happen? Is this real?' " said Selland.

Many businesses are still trying to figure out if they want to work with their competitors, and if so, to what extent, he said.

"There's no way they're going to just jump into these marketplaces and work with their competitors," said Selland.

And while antitrust questions have been raised about some online marketplace models, that's not likely to be the biggest challenge for businesses, he said.

"I think the government is the least of their problems," he said. "(Businesses have) got to figure out how to get this off the ground."

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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