An Internet-based Communications program to re-engineer the way you do business
John R. Patrick
Vice President – Internet Technology, IBM Corporation
Author’s Note: This article describes the elements of an internet-based communications program that will enable your organization to increase its responsiveness to the marketplace, improve communications with your key constituents and position yourself to succeed in this changing environment. The program is called Get Connected.
There is a new commercial paradigm developing around us that offers vast opportunities for those with vision and fortitude. It is the Internet. The Internet is the latest product of the growing trend toward a truly global economy.
This inter-networking of computers is part of the same phenomenon that is creating borderless markets across a wide variety of industries. To compete effectively in this global economy requires organizations to adopt a degree of openness and accessibility to which they may not be accustomed. Businesses already using the Net are succeeding because they have an open culture that best leverages the competitive advantages offered by the Internet.
You may feel there are drawbacks to such openness… Your competitors may learn more about your products and services, for instance. You may have read about computer hackers breaking into corporate networks over Internet connections. But the value of improved communications with the outside world far overshadows any perceived risks in being connected to the Net.
A grassroots orientation – A key principle of “Get Connected” is to encourage change in a grassroots basis. Top-down support is necessary for any fundamental operational change to take hold in an organization, but experience has shown that the most profound long-term impact occurs when key initiatives come from the individuals on the front lines.
Implementing this approach may require a change in management style. Organizations that encourage and act upon employee initiatives will be the ones who benefit from Get Connected.
This program requires a heightened level of communication with the outside world. If your people can’t talk about their work with intelligence — if not insight and passion — then your organization won’t gain the maximum benefit from these ideas. On the other hand, if they really understand what they’re doing, genuinely care about their work, and are empowered to speak on your behalf, you can achieve new competitive advantages in the marketplace.
Opening up… Customers, prospects, employees, suppliers, stockholders and many others may have reason to look inside your company and learn about you:
- They want to know about your products and services…
- They want to learn about the projects you are working on…
- They want to understand your philosophy and what you stand for.
The successful businesses of tomorrow understand this dynamic and realize that these inquiries generate business opportunity. Get Connected provides six simple, yet powerful techniques for opening up an organization and letting others come in. Just substitute your company name for GetCo, and consider how these principles could transform the way you do business.
1. [email protected] – Electronic mail has grown over the past twenty years from a technical tool used by research scientists, to a business tool almost as common as the fax machine. Today, electronic mail is primarily utilized only within a company’s local area networks.
Productivity gains from the use of intra-company e-mail are significant and it has become indispensable to many organizations. However, internal communications represent only a small fraction of overall business activity. Thus, an opportunity exists to derive similar efficiencies from our external communications.
Many people have been introduced to the power of e-mail through commercial on-line services such as America On-line, CompuServe and Prodigy. A growing number have accounts with Internet access providers. These services have helped spawn a renaissance in the lost art of letter writing. In the process, people have also discovered a world of information that enriches their lives.
E-mail versus snail mail… Then comes Monday morning. Back to work. Does this electronic dialogue continue? In many cases, it does not. The focus once again becomes internal. Electronic communication is too frequently limited to exchanging internal e-mail with fellow employees, while “snail mail” suffices for all outside communications.
Exclusive reliance on paper-based communications with the outside world is increasingly costly… Postal rates continue to rise. Documents require physical handling, the costs of which have become prohibitive in larger organizations. Mail must be opened, time stamped, logged, routed, delivered, duplicated and filed. Paper-based responses repeat the process.
Getting the maximum from [email protected] takes more than a technology solution… Getting the most out of e-mail requires a change in attitude. Managers may worry about lost productivity because their employees exchange e-mail with their children at college or exchange messages with other non-business sources. While it is certainly possible that some employees may abuse this e-mail capability, concerned managers should think of e-mail as a supplement to the telephone.
Productivity will increase significantly if unnecessary or redundant paper communications can be reduced… The effectiveness of communications can also be improved. Responses can be immediate. A good day should contain a few e-mail exchanges with fellow employees and many more with customers, suppliers, and business partners.
E-mail software has become very affordable, and is now within the grasp of most businesses. Internet connectivity for e-mail can be achieved through a variety of sources, from a direct connection to the Internet, a dial-up account with an access provider, or even through a commercial on-line service, for companies with more modest communications requirements.
2. [email protected] – Odds are that if someone knows where your company or organization is located, they can call Directory Assistance and find your telephone number. Most people have no clue as to how to find your e-mail address, however. If you want your organization to be accessible and easy to communicate with, then you need to create an e-mail equivalent of Directory Assistance.
Of course, an e-mail directory is more effective if every employee who has business contact with the outside world has their own individual Internet ID. Some organizations should also consider establishing distinct e-mail addresses for various departments, such as [email protected].
Establish a ‘Whois directory’… An easy to use, common directory with all employees and their functions can be made available on the Internet. One method of doing so is to establish a Whois server for your organization. For the technically oriented, the details of Whois can be found on the Internet in RFC954.1
To gain maximum effectiveness from your e-mail directory, you need to make people aware that it exists. Company advertising and marketing materials should advise your customers and prospects how to find your e-mail directory. The directory itself should also cross-reference appropriate phone numbers, as well as your home page on the World Wide Web. (Much more about the use of home pages follows.)
By practicing Get Connected and using electronic communications more broadly, your organization can quickly receive feedback from customers, encourage collaboration among your employees, implement new ideas and establish yourself as the easiest organization in the world to communicate with.
The key here is not the implementation… Technical people will figure out how to implement your e-mail system. The key is to accept the principle of opening up your organization and allowing outsiders to easily send you e-mail.
Will a flood of e-mail overburden your computer system? Some seasoned executives may resist the idea, with the justification that they may get deluged with e-mails and not be able to respond. Will a flood of e-mail overburden your computer system? Additional staff may be required to handle incoming e-mail if certain executive ID’s are widely publicized. But be sure to ask yourself:
- Is this a problem or an opportunity?
- Is it a problem if people have a pent-up demand to communicate with your organization?
- Is it a problem if a large number of people would like to send you feedback, questions, or even orders for your products and services?
The fundamental theory behind Get Connected is that in the long run, you will generate new business, improve customer satisfaction and increase your profits by making it easier to communicate with the outside world.
3. Exec[email protected] – If you want to prove that NOBODY is as easy to communicate with as your organization, you may want to try [email protected]. The principle behind executives on-line is to enable your constituencies to engage in open electronic dialogue with your executives.
There are a variety of methods for implementing Executives On-Line. The general idea is to allow customers to pose their questions directly to your executives. This can be accomplished through the use of electronic forums, or through public bulletin boards, known on the Internet as news groups.
Live on-line… Electronic forums are interactive conversations that are conducted in real time. Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is a technology that enables you to provide live dialogue over the Internet. Customers type their questions on-line, while your executive sits at a keyboard and types his/her responses as the questions are posed.
For a live on-line appearance by your executive to be successful, you will need to schedule these events well in advance and aggressively promote them to your constituents to ensure strong participation.
If your company lacks the technical expertise to implement Internet Relay Chat, many commercial on-line services have standing forums on specified topics in which your executives could participate. These forums usually feature an industry expert appropriate to that discussion group. Participation in these types of events can require less overhead and commitment of resources than sponsoring and promoting your own on-line event.
The CEO’s news group… An executive feedback program can also be conducted in off-line mode using news groups. Under the news group approach, a constituent would post a question or comment, visible to anyone looking at the news group. The executive would post an answer, which likewise would be visible by all participants. Participants can comment on the executive’s replies or on the questions and comments of others. As the threads of the discussion grow, the newsgroup becomes a sort of electronic town hall meeting. This process is less immediate than participation in a live forum, but the trade-off is the ability of your customers to look in on the discussion at their leisure.
The benefits from executives on-line are many… Offering executives on-line is another form of opening up your organization and allowing others to come in:
- It allows you to learn their likes and dislikes…
- It also enables you to deliver to a target audience key messages about your organizational philosophies, the principles you are dedicated to and the plans you have for the future.
“What if we get deluged with responses?” There will be push-back on this idea. Once again, is it really a problem if you get too many responses? If in fact you do get swamped, you can turn that to your advantage by posting a notice: “Your responses have been overwhelming, and as a result, it is not possible to personally answer every question. A representative selection of questions and answers will be posted for your review and convenience. Thank you for your terrific feedback.”
Another way to manage this response problem is to assign staff persons to read the questions posted to your news group, create answers, and have the appropriate executives approve them for posting.
The Internet is full of crack-pots and trouble-makers… Another objection you may hear to this type of program is that there are a lot of strange folks in cyberspace. While at times extreme or even insulting views may be directed at your organization, these messages often represent the leading edge of opinion. People on the Internet are passionate about their areas of interest. By listening to these opinion leaders, you may save a lot of time and money anticipating problems the masses will later experience.
The Internet can provide you with the world’s largest focus group — one willing to share its opinions with you — good or bad… You have to realize that you can’t control this focus group, however, and your conversation doesn’t take place privately. You have to be prepared to respond quickly to questions, inquiries and complaints. If it takes your organization weeks, or months, to formulate its responses to questions or criticism from the on-line community, you will have missed the opportunity to most effectively interact with and learn from your constituency.
The bottom line – this process can be effectively managed while providing your company with great benefits. Executives On-line can be a key part of your Get Connected program.
4. [email protected] – Every organization publishes a great deal of printed material — advertising, newsletters, direct mailings, press releases and so on. Most of these will have a section somewhere which says, “For more information, call 800-123-4567 or write to Customer Service, at 123 Main Street, Anywhere, USA.“
When a customer has a question or suggestion and does call or write, who answers the question and prepares a reply? And, if this same person also had e-mail at their disposal, wouldn’t that improve their responsiveness?
Why not bypass the postal system — to the extent possible — and include an e-mail ID on every printed document? Why not say, “For more information, send an e-mail to [email protected]?” You can also include a reference to your other resources: “For additional information, look at our home page on the World Wide Web.”
“What happens if we get swamped with e-mails?” Oh yes, you can anticipate the same push-back as with the other ideas. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful problem to have so many inquiries about your products and services, that it was a challenge to keep up with them all?
An important point to consider is that each of these electronic inquiries becomes a valuable entry into your marketing database. All of your electronic information contact points can be designed to ask some simple questions of the people who are accessing your information. Direct marketers will tell you that getting the name of a person who already uses e-mail and is interested in your
organization is worth measurable dollar amounts in projected future sales.
5. www.GetCo.com – The next phase of Get Connected is to create an information repository on the Internet in a server on the World Wide Web. (The typical address of this Web server would be “www.GetCo.com” under the Internet’s conventions.)
A server, which is simply a host computer which provides round-the-clock dedicated access to material stored there, is a resource where industry analysts, consultants, editors, and the public can access GetCo press releases, product information, white papers, technical and customer support information about your products and services. A home page does much more that provide another dusty library of information about your company, however.
The Web is the killer application of the Internet… The World Wide Web is a phenomenon that is unprecedented in its growth and excitement. The Web is a body of information that is interconnected by hyperlinks. These links transform logical relationships between pieces of information into actual physical relationships.
For instance, a user may be looking at your company’s home page, and see that a new government regulation affects the export of certain products you sell. If a hyperlink was in place, it could connect the user directly to a government computer in Washington, for example, which had the full text of the new law. The World Wide Web allows users to interconnect between these logical relationships in a free associative manner.
A GetCo homepage… A fundamental element of Get Connected is the creation of a home page on the World Wide Web for your organization. The home page is displayed when a user first connects to your World Wide Web server. The home page becomes the starting point (or table of contents) that guides the user to other sources of related information. It is a powerful communications tool for presenting your organization to the millions of people who use the World Wide Web.
- A home page can be the central clearinghouse for all the information and resources that you offer your customers and prospects on-line.
- The home page can provide the links to your technical service information, and a list of answers to the most frequent questions your customers have.
- You can post on your home page new announcements and press releases, an e-mail directory of your employees, or a list of authorized dealers for your products.
- Your home page can even serve as an interactive bulletin board for customer feedback, as discussed earlier in the Executive On-Line portion of Get Connected.
Getting around the GetCo. homepage… Search tools are available that can be integrated in your home page to enable users to enter a keyword to find information in press releases or other documents that reside in your system. The World Wide Web is consistent in its format, so that when users first encounter your home page they will already know how to use it.
While all these capabilities alone make a home page a powerful communications tool, its effectiveness extends even further. Web home pages can enable companies to provide customers with photos of their products, demo versions of new software, full-motion video to show how to assemble or install a product, or even provide entertainment. A home page allows an organization to present a customized look and feel that further reflects and communicates its corporate identity.
After you’ve experienced the power and flexibility of the Web, you will not want your organization to be absent… Not being present on the World Wide Web will soon be equivalent to not having a fax machine. And in the not-too-distant future, not doing business on the World Wide Web will be equivalent to not doing business at all.
How does one go about creating a presence on the Web? There are many sources of information on how to do this, listed in the accompanying bibliography. The Web itself has many sites which provide tutorials, examples, and reference information.
All of these benefits of the Web also apply to your employees… The World Wide Web can be used inside your company for employee communication and support. Your World Wide Web server can be accessed on your internal company network, if it supports TCP/IP. Medical claim forms, vacation requests, company announcements and a variety of additional intra-company information can be disseminated internally over a home page.
For larger companies, the home page can greatly improve the integration of information among divisions and locations, while improving the sense of community within your organization. A firewall can be placed between your internal network and the Internet, allowing employees to reach outside your private network, but preventing users outside of the organization from reaching in.
Employees surfing the Net… Numerous benefits accrue from allowing employees to surf the Net and have access to home pages outside of your organization. Especially in large organizations, it is easy to focus inward and lose sight of marketplace trends. The World Wide Web provides a way for researchers, market analysts, marketing planners, product planners, etc., to follow the activities of customers, competitors and suppliers.
6. [email protected] – The world of electronic commerce is about to explode. Soon there will be security mechanisms to enable on-line user authentication, the use of digital signatures and the secure encryption of credit card numbers and purchase order information. Offering your goods and services for sale via the World Wide Web is a natural extension of Get Connected that will result from these imminent technology developments.
By effectively using the Web to display your products and services through multimedia presentation techniques, it is only natural to enable the user to CLICK HERE to order the product. Orders can be automatically transferred to your central business systems for order processing, inventory management, billing and shipping. In the process, you have also gained the electronic mail ID of the customer and other information for future pinpoint marketing activities.
A company can achieve tremendous savings by automating elements of its order processing… Companies in a wide variety of industries have already done so. As the reliance on paper transaction documentation continues to migrate to electronic systems, even more cost savings will result. Greater numbers of these transactions will inevitably move to the Internet and be deployed on a business-to-business basis. This trend will continue to accelerate as industry groups such as CommerceNet apply new technology to electronic commerce. Traditional order-taking staffs already are able to handle more inquiries in less time thanks to this technology. In time, more businesses will redirect these employees into more income-generating positions, as this new way of buying and selling continues to expand.
Critical Success Factors
The following four factors will help ensure the successful implementation of the Get Connected program in your organization:
- Grassroots support. Many different kinds of skills are necessary to implement the concepts of Get Connected. Some are technical, some are communications-oriented and some are marketing-oriented. This program most likely cannot be implemented with only a top-down approach. Grassroots teamwork must be encouraged, nurtured, and supported.
- Executive commitment is critical to break through the barriers that may occur. By definition, electronic communications has the effect of flattening the organizational structure, thereby threatening entrenched middle management groups. The commitment from the top is critical to keep the grassroots teams energized and avoid bureaucratic resistance to the implementation of these ideas.
- A strong technical infrastructure. Once you have established a presence on the World Wide Web, it is critical that it be available consistently around the clock – the World Wide Web is global. You may be surprised to find that you begin to generate as many inquiries from other parts of the world as you do from your own region.
Erratic availability will cause people to lose interest in your home page, and with so many interesting sites on the World Wide Web, there is no guarantee that someone will come back to your site if information was unavailable the first time.
- Listening to your constituents. Electronic communication makes it easy for constituents to give you feedback. A commitment must be made to listen to the feedback you receive from your constituents, and promptly and thoughtfully respond to it. Remember: feedback that is critical in nature is usually insightful. Listening to these leading edge users will save you time, and money, in the long run.
Getting Connected can energize your organization and allow you to transform it to meet your vision for doing business into the next century. The obstacles are real, but the benefits are spectacular. Get Connected!
1. RFC stands for “Request for Comment” and it is the primary mechanism used by the Internet community to implement new ideas. Basically, someone has an idea and writes a technical paper describing it, which is then circulated on the Internet for comment. The process continues until consensus is reached regarding the new idea.
About the Author
John R. Patrick is the Vice President of IBM Internet Technology. John is spearheading IBM’s efforts to introduce a broad range of Internet servers, services and solutions to empower customers with the four phases of Internet connectivity. John has been with IBM for 30 years. He was a founder of the IBM Credit Corporation, today the largest computer leasing company in the world. In 1992 he became vice president of marketing for personal systems and was part of the team responsible for creating the ThinkPad brand.