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Make it transparent and predictable

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Like many of you, I've been traveling a lot lately, definitely more than I did a year ago. In my case, these are mostly shuttle trips between Chicago and New York.

All frequent-fliers know this truth: These trips will grind you to dust if you don't learn how to put yourself on automatic pilot. This is easiest if you depart from and return to the same airports, use the same hotels and, for those lucky few in the senior executive ranks, use the same car service. (In fairness, there are downsides to being in a trance while traveling. For me, it's the habit of entering an information cocoon. Although I obsessively check e-mail-either on my cell phone or PDA-as I wait at the gate or for a meeting to start, I may not handle a newspaper or catch more than a couple minutes of CNN in days, what with all the late night, post-meeting dinners with friends and colleagues, and early mornings.)

Whereas the hallmarks of personal travel are serendipity and exploration, for the business traveler the requirement is exactly the opposite. Predictability is a priority. The travel industry as a whole knows this, which is why our "preferences" are so important to them. A hotel chain that continually forgets I expect my room to be nonsmoking and on a high floor won't have my business for long. Ditto for the airlines and car rental companies.

There's another industry that has taken this idea of predictability forward, both in marketing and customer-facing tools. The express shipping companies-they send your business packages on trips, in a sense-not only provide time-of-day-delivery guarantees, they have Web-based interfaces for checking the whereabouts of a package. Am I the only one who finds something tremendously comforting about refreshing the Web page and seeing that, yes, the package with the new fax machine arrived safe and sound at the distribution center in Harvey, Ill., at 4:10 a.m. and has been scheduled for delivery at my office today, before 11:00 a.m.?

How can your business expose online to customers in this fashion? And take it one step further: Beyond processes and data, what refreshing kinds of information about the corporation, or even the executive staff, might your customers or prospects want to see?

I'm not advocating putting a Webcam in the office break room-which more than a few new companies did during the go-go dot-com days. Rather, take a cue from the wildly popular social media outlets such as blogs and podcasts, and how this phenomenon manifests a very human impulse to connect with the people on the other end of the pipe. Put another way, in the old days, buyers and sellers routinely met each other, visited each other's businesses and factories. Today, partners may be a half a world away and never meet. For this reason alone it makes sense to think creatively about new ways of connecting with your customers and prospects.

I'm leaving now for my next flight. To review: Business runs on predictability. Have you done all you can to obtain your customers' preferences, either those they've explicitly stated or ones you can assume based on an analysis of their past behaviors? Have you made your organization transparent where you can?

Ellis Booker is editor of BtoB and BtoB's Media Business. He can be reached at ebooker@crain.com.

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