The More You Learn, The Less Is Obvious

By Tom Steinert-Threlkeld  |  Posted 2004-01-16 Print this article Print

Logic doesn't always prevail, when it comes to deploying a system to achieve an objective.

The more one learns about how information systems get used or deployed, the less it seems safe to say logic always prevails.

I'm convinced of this, after nearly a quarter-century watching and writing about the ways companies capture, exchange and act on information about customers—and the processes that serve them.

Here are just a few random observations as a new year dawns, in no particular order:

  • Data "cleansing" is now a big business. At the end of last year, Baseline estimated that $580 million is spent annually by U.S. companies on the effort to get names, addresses and other fundamental facts about customers, suppliers, products and processes correct ("Mopping Up Dirty Data," December 2003). Yet almost anyone not named Smith or Jones is going to wonder: Why can't the companies spending all this money spell a name right? If customers are so important, why rely on software to check the name? Do they think the software knows how to properly spell "Steinert" or "Threlkeld," much less the combination?

    Why not, just once, call and ask?

    Too costly, you say. Not if you're serious about "one-on-one" marketing or personal service. All the scrubbing in the world won't change a person's mind about your company if you can't get a name spelled right.

  • Reliability is also something a lot of companies that do business electronically do not take fully to heart. The biggest benefit of the online marketplace and the Web services that increasingly permeate it are that they are available around the clock, 365 days a year. Yet Wily Technology, a company that makes software for managing programs created with the Java development language, found that Web applications are only available to users 88% of the time. Twenty hours of selling time are lost every week. More tellingly, 40% of the time the first notice of a problem comes from a customer or executive complaint. Worse, 30% of the time diagnosing the problem takes more than a day.

  • Sure, spam is a scourge that ought to be fought on all fronts to protect what is arguably the greatest advance in interpersonal and intercontinental communication since the advent of the telephone. According to MessageLabs Intelligence, in fact, two-thirds of all spam worldwide is sent through hijacked computers. And its estimate that the volume of spam increased 77% in 2003 seems decidedly conservative. But corporate users as well as individuals still seem to be attacking the problem incorrectly. E-mail software provides plenty of options to cut down on unsolicited messages—or at least select the ones you really want to read. The unwanted messages that get through corporate or personal spam filters can be routed into the trash—or just ignored. Who said you had to spend your life deleting unwanted e-mail? If a message is truly important, the person will find another way to get hold of you. Don't let the combat of spam rule—or ruin—your life.

  • Besides, if spam is so unbearable, there are easy ways to eliminate it. What rulebook says you or your company should just accept e-mail from all comers, blindly? If you use a service such as ChoiceMail, for instance, senders have to register to be able to send you messages. You can encourage persons you know to register. And otherwise block e-mail from unknown senders.

  • When you send e-mail, consider this obstacle: The reason you didn't get an answer may not be that the recipient is using an e-mail blocker. The person may just hide behind the ether as a way to avoid contact.

  • Finally, before you attack your customer, make sure you're right. There's a Canadian company trying to break into the United States market for mortgages that has not gotten control of its information systems. It is finding it hard to process its own payment coupons and credit checks to the proper account. The company also can't process automatic withdrawals from a customer's bank account. Yet before it performs any self-examination, it notifies credit agencies that the customer is in default. Falsely.

    Does it try talking to the customer first? No. This bank just presumes guilt, not innnocence. Hardly a way to win customers in the United States. Or any place.

    Tom was editor-in-chief of Interactive Week, from 1995 to 2000, leading a team that created the Internet industry's first newspaper and won numerous awards for the publication. He also has been an award-winning technology journalist for the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He is a graduate of the Harvard Business School and the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

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