It’s goodbye from me, and is it also goodbye to e-tail intimacy?

E-business has come a long way since the dot-com crash, and the likes of Google are powering ahead. But growth should not be at the cost of the customer relationship that made these firms successful

Just before sitting down to write this, my final column, I checked the US business headlines on Yahoo, my “newspaper” for the past seven years or more. The top headline was a classic: “Google’s 3Q Profit Seven Times Higher”. An almost $100bn (&£56bn) company, created from scratch just seven years ago, and built entirely on something as unsexy as a few words and a click.

That such vast riches can accrue from this humble offering rather than the all-singing, all-dancing kind of advertising we have become used to on television, is testament to the new hunger for information that defines 21st century consumers. They are no longer the passive, captive audience so beloved of 20th century marketers. Instead they are “lean-forward” activists, using a networked world to hunt down the best deals, the most stimulating entertainment and the most useful information.

Google’s continuing mega-success comes during another period of anxiety and uncertainty in the wider economy – thanks to high petrol prices, hurricanes, earthquakes and wars. But it serves to show, five and a half years after the bursting of the dot-com bubble, that the internet is indeed having a profound effect on where and how money is being spent. The “virtual world” economy does not stand apart from the “real world”, as was once foolishly promoted and believed. But it is certainly responsible for one of the greatest redistributions of wealth ever seen.

I could spend the rest of this column waxing lyrical about the impending wireless “clouds” that are about to envelope our towns and cities, making always-on, always-at-hand internet access a reality that will take our use of the Net to ever greater heights. I could return to my borderline obsession with blogs and confess that my binge-blogging (reading other people’s and writing my own) has forced me to go cold turkey for a while and reconsider the downside of such an impossibly vast flow of information. I could return to the subject that I noted emerging as a huge phenomenon at the start of 2004 – ultra-cheap telephone calls over the internet – and ask: where next now that two-year-old Skype has been bought by Ebay for a paltry $4bn (&£2.3bn)? But fascinating as these “big” subjects are, I prefer to wrap up this column by focusing on the little things: the so easily overlooked details.

So let me then, in the honourable tradition of constructive criticism, refer you to Amazon, which has done so many good things when it comes to customer focus and customer service. I would hate to think it is slipping, that it is becoming too big and anonymous for anyone within it to really care anymore. Does it matter that Amazon failed to deliver two virtual gift vouchers until 48 hours after they were ordered – and about 36 hours after the two birthdays for which they were intended? Surely the “Sorry-we-had-a-glitch-end-of-story” type e-mail I received in response to my urgent enquiries isn’t the best that Amazon could come up with.

Was I really being so unreasonable to ask why, in the absence of the timely gift certificates (timeliness being the internet’s most prized quality), someone – yes, a real live person rather than a machine – could not have typed a few words to the intended recipients, apologising for the delay but assuring them that the gift certificates were on their way?

Is today’s Amazon a bigger version of yesteryear’s cuddly Amazon? Or has it, as is so often the way, morphed into Big Anonymous Couldn’t Care Less Amazon? I’d ask Amazon’s PR person, if only he’d bother to return my calls and e-mails.

And talking of cuddly brings me on to Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic and its cheerful website – a good, user-friendly site that I have enjoyed on more than one occasion. On the most recent, having booked a return flight from London to New York, I tried to use its online DIY check-in service, both on the way out and coming back. The aim of this is to save you time at the airport. Sounds great.

So why didn’t it work on either leg of the journey? I wasted time following the instructions only to be told at the end that the service was not available for these flights. Seems like it’s a mystery to Virgin as well, judging from the letter they sent me. It was a very cuddly, very Virgin sort of letter, so no complaints there. But I’m not convinced that anything will have been done to check, double-check and triple check that this functionality will work the next time I – and thousands of others – need it.

Websites are living, breathing entities that should be shaped as much by their users as by the companies they represent. They require constant attention. It’s not like the old world where the consumer was wrong until proven innocent and where companies could just assume everything worked because they had once – long, long ago – checked it. Every time a consumer gives you feedback on your website you should a) thank him for his free consultation, b) involve him in the process of fixing the problem and c) reward him for his time and effort. Well, I can dream can’t I?

Thanks for listening. Over and out. â¢

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