Don't forget the human touch

A Web presence can substantially reduce business costs but savings should not be chased at the expense of customer relationships,...

A Web presence can substantially reduce business costs but savings should not be chased at the expense of customer relationships, explains Julia Vowler

As the department given the task of keeping costs at a minimum, it will not have escaped the IT manager's notice that the cost of doing business over the Web is substantially cheaper than nearly all other channels.

Compared with the cost of staffing a call centre, posting catalogues, or supporting a high-street retail outlet, hosting a Web site costs peanuts. Even better, it's the customers that have to do all the clicking, and they even pay for the telephone call.

But, warns Richard Boocock, director of management information services at industrial gas company Air Products, which is enthusiastic about exploiting the Internet as a channel to its business customers, the real value in e-business is definitely not in focusing on cutting operational costs.

"In the last few years we've been investing very heavily in e-business," says Boocock. "One of the great opportunities [it presents] is that it can substantially reduce transaction costs."

But he argues that this is not the end of the story. "Air Products' e-business strategy is all about meeting customer needs and adding value for them not cutting costs," he says.

"There's a lot more to customer relationships than cutting the cost of transactions from £2 to 25 pence.

"The overall value chain and customer relationship is more valuable than the transaction process," Boocock adds.

Not only will there always be customers who do not want to use the Web as a channel, preferring more traditional routes, such as paper and the telephone, but those channels can bring in more than just an order, argues Boocock.

"You can get a lot of value out of a five-minute telephone conversation with a customer," he explains, from feedback to future orders.

A good Web presence should seek to emulate that opportunity for deeper customer relations.

"You can get that kind of value out of a Web site so long as it's constructed with relationship building in mind; and you can motivate people to complete the customer information gathering process."

Moreover, argues Boocock, the corporate resources saved by executing over the Web can then be invested in further, deeper customer relationship management.

"The Web channel can cut the cost of transactions and give staff more time to look after the customer relationship, look for opportunities to improve it and discover joint benefits for both," Boocock says.

Never forget, he says, "the overall relationship still has to be managed by humans".

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