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Comdex panelists tout E-commerce to keep customers

November 19, 1998
Web posted at: 1:07 PM ET

by Juan Carlos Perez

(IDG) -- LAS VEGAS -- Companies should use their electronic-commerce systems not only as Web-based storefronts, but also as tools to get to know their customers and to form relationships with them, speakers said yesterday morning here during a panel at Comdex/Fall '98.

Companies that focus exclusively on the technology powering their Web site risk ending up with a snazzy online store that customers visit only once, said Randall Meyer, vice president of electronic marketing at Compaq Computer Corp., during the panel, Building Customer Centric E-commerce Systems.

The price to pay when you don't factor the customer in to your system's design process can be high, another speaker said.

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"The 'build it and they will come' approach can lead to financial disaster," pointed out Carolyn Osborne, vice president of information technology services at Carolina Power & Light in Raleigh, N.C.

By using commerce systems to collect and analyze customer information, companies can personalize sales, marketing and distribution strategies in a way that adds value to the customer; this, in turn, will keep customers loyal.

Getting to know customers is key to retaining them, especially now that, thanks to the Web, companies can do business in places where they never operated before. That can increase competition, as can the fact that new companies can be launched quickly and with small investments, speakers said.

"With electronic commerce, barriers have disappeared, so you don't know where your next competitor is going to come from," said Mark Ferrer, general manager of Baan North America and president of Baan USA.

Companies must also make sure their electronic-commerce systems are integrated with their supply chains. If the online store has no access to inventory or distribution information, it's possible that many orders will be delivered late and incorrectly. And that would defeat the purpose of having a Web storefront in the first place, speakers said.

Likewise, if different departments within the same company manage customer information on separate, disconnected systems, the company is going to have several different and incomplete profiles for the same customer, making it impossible to truly understand the customer's needs and preferences.

This IT integration is a challenge at many large companies, especially those that have been involved in mergers and acquisitions, said Charles Feld, CIO at Delta Airlines Inc.

"These companies often end up having three different names for the same customer," Feld said.

Having an integrated IT infrastructure will also benefit the company by giving employees from different departments access to information across the enterprise. Thus, salespeople will be able to provide distribution information to a client who is very interested in knowing how and when the products will be delivered -- something that could help close the sale.

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