Forget about venturing to the mall to browse for the latest paperback novel or titanium driver. By tracking your past purchases and analysing your preferences, your favourite Web retailer will e-mail you a customised, one-of-a-kind list of shopping recommendations selected with only you in mind. Not only will you never again have to play chicken to get a parking space, you won't even have to get up from your chair.
Like advocates of almost any new invention or trend, e-commerce companies and their hordes of acolytes are prone to hyperbole. Because of the Web, they say, companies can reach out to customers-whether they are consumers or other businesses-to offer the kind of personalised, one-to-one service that will rewrite the rules of capitalist economies.
There are just a few flaws in the acclaim of these brave new world boosters, however. For one thing, one-to-one service isn't revolutionary. If anything, e-commerce promises to return us to the days when the milkman delivered a daily quart and the Fuller Brush guy stopped in once a month. (When I was a kid, my family actually got six-packs of Coke delivered to the milk box.) Of course, it's no longer practical-both for economic and demographic reasons-for companies to ply their wares door-to-door. But to assert that the Internet will transform customer service from a realm of hostility into an unprecedented touchy-feely domain where customers feel like they're the only ones that matter is misguided at best and a dangerous mistake at worst.
Why dangerous? Complacency. E-commerce companies may think that just by building a Web site, loading it up with cookies, automated e-mail response systems and electronic shopping carts, they've cracked the code to delivering good customer service.
They're wrong. The service they provide may be personalised. But it's not personal.
People like the idea of the one-to-one service that e-commerce makes possible. In our highly generic, impersonal world of strip malls, franchises and chain stores, personalised e-mail greetings and customised recommendations remind us of how service used to be. And for e-commerce companies, the attraction of the Internet is obvious. They can expend relatively little energy to reach out and touch millions of customers.
Yet online customers are starting to clamour for good, old-fashioned human contact. A recent survey by NFO Interactive, an online market research and Web site evaluation company, revealed that close to 35 per cent of the more than 2,300 online shoppers surveyed would buy more products online if they could communicate with a person on the other end. Of people who have not yet purchased anything online, nearly 14 per cent said they would do so if they could speak to a customer service rep.
I can personally attest to the validity of the NFO survey. When I recently purchased a couple of CDs from a popular Web site, I had a few follow-up questions about shipping. I sent e-mails. I called an 800 number. My questions promptly disappeared into the cybervoid, never again to see the light of day. But every week or so, I get a friendly, personalised e-mail pitch from the site informing me of all the great titles on sale. I am a worthwhile customer, only it's a computer that says so.
I think the next time I'm in the market for CDs, I won't head for the Web. Instead, I'll be circling the parking lot at my neighbourhood mall.
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