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The Real E-Business

The Real E-Business

Do you remember the old days of software development? It wasn't that long ago when we were developing software on machines with very limited memory and the disk capacity of my watch. With every line of code, we'd take careful calculated steps to conserve system resources. Any block of code that could be changed to squeeze out extra memory was analyzed and changed accordingly. Those were the days when machines were small, networking was in its infancy, and the Internet didn't exist. Of course, now computers are more powerful than we could have imagined, which makes our applications much more useless and dangerous.

With this newfound horsepower, we're guilty of building the most heinous creation known to man: e-business. With good intentions, the software community extended the brick-and-mortar establishments to serve their customers better. In reality, live customer service was replaced by FAQ links and a meaningless knot of Web pages that lead the consumer nowhere. When you finally get to a "customer care" e-mail link, you're given the generic "Your business is important to us" e-mail reply. For fun, when requesting customer support from an e-business via e-mail, I always include my phone number with a friendly request to call me. No one ever has. The largest online bookstore doesn't even have a customer support phone number.

Last year I bought a laptop computer online; I needed it shipped overnight so I could use it for a conference I was attending. When it didn't arrive, I e-mailed the company and asked them to cancel my order, as I would borrow a laptop. Lo and behold, it arrived 10 minutes before I left for the airport. Happy, I e-mailed the company saying all was well. This is where it gets weird.

After arriving at the conference I checked my e-mail; there were three e-mails from this company. The first contained an apology that my new laptop was not received, with a promise that another would be shipped as soon as possible. I replied in kind that I received my laptop after all, and all was well - case closed. The second e-mail contained another apology and informed me that since I canceled my order, my credit card was not billed. The third e-mail exclaimed that since my order went through, and the laptop had shipped, my credit card would be billed. I shrugged my shoulders and did my best to rectify the situation.

The day I got home this company shipped me a second laptop. Now I have two. With this complex situation, I vainly e-mailed the company trying to sort this out. Since I was obviously dealing with multiple people in different departments, I left my phone number, asking someone to please call me so we could work this out. No one ever did. The next week I tried again. Two days later I received an e-mail exclaiming that "in order to serve me better," I was not allowed to return any computer without first obtaining "a return authorization number." The e-mail did not include instructions for procuring one. So with an honest conscience, I waited for some bean counter to find this error and contact me using the rule "if you think no one cares, miss a payment." After all, they have not yet charged me for either of the two laptops. Still nobody called.

When opening my credit card statement at the end of the month, I was shocked to discover that this company not only didn't charge me, they actually credited my account for the price of one computer. Now I'm up two laptops and about $800. The feeling was like buying a soda from a machine and getting back too much change - only better.

My wife and friends who were following this story suggested I buy more computers from these people. I almost did. Honesty got the best of me (I really hate it when that happens) and I sent what was to be my last e-mail to these folks. I explained the situation. What did I get in return? Nothing. After a week I visited their Web site. There I saw the news. On their main page was a notice stating that they were out of business. This company cited the Internet bubble and declining computer prices. I knew better. Incompetence, not external factors, led to their demise.

Now I know this story is an extreme example and is not shared by many. But if you think about it, almost everyone who has ever shopped online has had a similar if somewhat less extreme experience. My message is simple: technology can never take the place of good people, good business, or just plain common sense. To be successful, the software we create can extend good people and business practices, not replace them. As PowerBuilder extends its reach in the Web services world, I hope all of you remember this story and take it to heart when you start writing e-business applications.

With all of the benefits of e-business, a part of me wants to bring back the old days when I would order goods out of a catalog and a friendly voice would answer the phone with a warm "thank you for calling," and mean it.

More Stories By Bob Hendry

Bob Hendry is a PowerBuilder instructor for Envision Software Systems and a frequent speaker at national and international PowerBuilder conferences. He specializes in PFC development and has written two books on the subject, including Programming with the PFC 6.0.

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