Information quality is an essential ingredient to a successful Web site, whether informational or e-business transactional. Consider the following:
A UK retail company received and confirmed orders for thousands of television sets mispriced at £3 (U.S. $5.00) instead of the actual price of £300 (U.S. $500.00) before discovering the error.
- A European telecommunications company failed to charge their customers for Internet services, an amount equivalent to 8 million euros ($7.8 million) for 9 months before they discovered the "oversight."
- A U.S. airline offered trans-Atlantic flights for $25.00 fares.
- An industrial supplier, whose typical orders were $1,000 to $10,000, received an Internet order for $10 billion of materials from a fictitious customer named "Dr. Evil."
While information quality (IQ) is important in all business, it is even more critical in e-business. In cyberspace, the information is the business. All customer or supplier interactions and transactions take place electronically without staff physically present to notice when things go askew.
Quality problems occur in Gemba, the Japanese word that means "the real place." In quality management, Gemba means the place where value work happens. For example, in manufacturing, it is where products are made or where services are performed.1 In information quality, Gemba is anywhere information is acquired, maintained or exchanged. However, where is Gemba on the Internet? It's in virtual cyberspace.
Internet IQ problems abound. The existence of unscrupulous and unreliable Web sites has driven potential e-customers away from the Internet. In cyberspace, customers who have a "complaint" are just one or two clicks away from competitors. If they cannot find something easily or perceive noncurrent, missing or inaccurate information on the Web, they do not have to leave their computing device to go to the competition.
Nonquality information in cyberspace can go unnoticed except by the visitors for much longer periods of time than in a store, where staff can recognize and adjust for obvious information quality problems. Therefore, an organization must have processes in place to create, maintain and assure the quality of information they post on the Web.
Employees are no longer in control of the information produced. The e-customer has become the new information producer in e-business. Organi-zations cannot "train" e-customers in the same way they can train order takers or sales staff. Therefore, business transactions must be easy, intuitive and error-proof. The anonymity of the Web opens the reality of maliciously provided information.
Mistrust has created new IQ problems of deliberate inaccuracy to protect e-customers' privacy. A 1996 survey showed more than a quarter (26.2 percent) of Web visitors said they have provided false information when registering with Web sites.2 By 1998, that figure grew to 42.1 percent.3 However, of the 4,563 respondents who had registered on a Web site and who did answer, 46.2 percent said they had falsified information at least once, with 12.3 percent of them saying they did so more than 50 percent of the time.
Sustainable e-business success requires an understanding of customer expectations and a customer-centric e-business value chain.
World-class e-businesses like world-class brick-and-mortar businesses focus on customer satisfaction for success. The first of Deming's 14 Points of Quality confirms that an organization must "create constancy of purpose for improvement of product and service," an obligation that never ceases because "the consumer is the most important part of the production line."4
The first component in creating quality e-business is to understand your customers' needs in the market you wish to serve. A customer's general quality (and the e-customer's general information quality) requirements are fourfold:
Right (accurate and complete). Whether looking for information or products, the customers want it to be correct and complete. They want to receive what they order. E-customers must trust the information you provide.
Timely (availability and timely access). The world is increasingly "just-in-time" and e-customers want to conduct their business on their timetable.
Easy (easy to find, understand and conduct business). Customers will work with suppliers who are easy to work with. The more complex the business transactions, the easier it will be for e-customers to go elsewhere.
Value for money. Customers, and e-customers are willing to pay for things that add value to the products and services they buy that meet or exceed their expectations. Some will even pay more for comparable products they can buy with one click versus going through a five-step order process, having to repeat information they have already provided.
Because customers measure quality of products and services in terms of how well those products and services help them to be successful, concentrate on your e-customers' success. Find new ways to use the Internet to help your customers to be more successful.
- Use appropriate e-customer satisfaction surveys to gather likes and dislikes. Make them easy to complete, and analyze and act on the feedback.
- Understand what terms are used to access your site via search engines and lookups on your site engine. These indicate subjects of interest.
- Use your e-customer knowledge to help them avoid mistakes.
- Customize instructions for customers given their unique environment. An e-tailer customized installation instructions for a stereo-CD player based on the make and model automobile. They won an e-customer for life.
- Use customized e-mail early warnings. Some airlines customize e-mail and e-mobile communications for cancelled or delayed flights to their frequent flyers.
- Use renewal or reminder notices. Pharmacies send e-mail reminder notices for regular prescriptions before patients' supplies are used. This is especially helpful for patients with failing memories.
- Always provide value when you contact e-customers. Never let it be perceived that you are contacting them only for "selling" purposes.
What do you think? Let me know at Larry.English@infoimpact.com.
4. Deming, W. Edwards. Out of the Crisis. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Advanced Engineering Study, 1986. p. 26.
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