Riding the Internet Wave in Customer Service

(Originally published as a Customer Service column in the
November 1998 issue of AFSMI's The Professional Journal.)

By William K. Pollock

The Internet has quickly become one of the most easily accessible and efficient means for services organizations of all sizes, and individual businesspersons, to acquire information on the marketplace that was never readily available to them in the past. The amount of information available "on the net" is not only staggering, but also extremely useful in terms of customer service applications.

Even better, through the various search engines that are available to Internet "surfers" at little to no additional charge, you can either look up the market and vendor information yourself, or use the services of a part-time research analyst or student on summer or holiday break to do specific on-line research for the organization. A student may not know as much about the market or the business as you do, but he or she will almost certainly know their way around the Internet.

For example, in the past, it was virtually impossible for a small business to research what its major competitors were doing in the marketplace with respect to customer service. You couldn't call them yourself, or have someone on your staff make the call, and the cost of hiring a competitive market research firm to obtain the information for you was all but prohibitive.

However, these unattractive alternatives are no longer as necessary because, increasingly, businesses of all sizes have been "launching" their own "home pages" on the web which list and describe all of their major products and services, along with a brief overview of the company itself. The cost of establishing a business home page is no longer prohibitive, and the amount of information available through business web searching can fill volumes of market and competitive data files. Further, there are an increasing number of bulletin boards and chat rooms that are dedicated to the business - and services - marketplace that are also worth taking a look into.

If your services focus is healthcare, banking, retail, or any other vertical industry segment, there are many free, or inexpensive, on-line data sources that can be accessed via the web to monitor trends in the industry, news and press releases, new product or service introductions, mergers and acquisitions, new contract signings and the like. Many industry segment businesses, trade publications and trade associations (like AFSMI) offer information and assistance through their proprietary home pages. Similarly, many of the major segment product and services providers also have their own home pages, replete with information on their respective businesses, often including company profiles and overviews; product and services listings; names and addresses of local and national business partners, dealers, distributors and agents; etc.

However, you don't have to already be in business in order to benefit from the use of the Internet. For example, if you are looking for a job, sometimes the Internet is the best place to get started in terms of finding out which area companies are hiring, what positions they are looking for, and to whom within the company you should forward your resume. Most of the larger business and trade associations (including, once again, AFSMI) also have their own job placement pages on the web, and if you have access to any of the on-line Internet services such as Compuserve or America On-Line, you should also have additional job search capabilities at your disposal.

If you are a business manager getting ready to launch a new product or service in the marketplace, the Internet is also the place to go to obtain up-to-date information on what may already be out there. If you are getting ready to make a sales call to a major prospect or a courtesy call to an existing customer account, the Internet may provide you with additional information that is not in your company's customer or prospect account files. If you are getting ready for a job interview, or beginning a job search, the Internet will provide you with key information on your prospective employer that can make you appear much more knowledgeable, and better prepared, for your interview.

Once you have finally "made it" in the business world, or as your own business begins to climb up the ladder of success, the Internet also works in reverse, by providing current, informative and useful information to prospective customers and business partners. It is always important, however, to remember that you are now providing others in the marketplace with the same levels of information that you had previously used to get "to the top." As is the case with many other widely available business tools, the Internet represents a double-edged sword if not managed and utilized carefully.

When the first of the on-line Internet providers came on the scene several years ago, most of their respective users spent most of their time looking up baseball scores and batting averages, hotel guides and restaurant ratings, movie reviews, airline schedules and everything else, including the weather. Today, whether you work for a large services organization or want to start one of your own, or whether you are looking to hire someone or get hired yourself, the Internet is the place to get started.

William K. Pollock is president of Strategies For GrowthSM (SFGSM), the Westtown, Pennsylvania-based services consulting firm specializing in strategic business planning, services marketing, CRM consulting, market/survey research, and customer satisfaction measurement and tracking programs. Bill may be reached at 610-399-9717 or via e-mail at wkp@s4growth.com.

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