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NetSense: Get your front and back ends in gear: Integrate Web and legacy

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The million-dollar question for 1999 is: "Have you integrated your legacy systems and business processes with your online operations?" Right now, for the majority of b-to-b electronic commerce sites, the answer is "no."

This means that those users filling out forms and clicking on buttons at your site are generating data that does not end up integrating with data you have already. Likewise, those product databases your company has been maintaining for years have not been seamlessly integrated with the browser.

You may have bought or written some "middleware" to work as a go-between, but somewhere in your office I bet someone is re-keying data by hand.

This will change, and soon. According to an InformationWeek survey of information technology executives, 10% of IT budgets, on average, have been allocated to e-commerce or Internet projects for 1999. Some people who reported on this number think it's too small, but I see it as a bellwether.

One-tenth of the IT budget now goes to something that didn't even exist four years ago. I think it would be even more if the Year 2000 problem wasn't getting most of the budget right now. Watch that 10% jump dramatically next year.

So what's the NetSense in all this? Don't make your customer suffer because your front end (browser) and your back end (internal management information system databases) are still learning to get along.

The best way to explain what I mean by this is by example. I was at the site of an insurance company that specializes in small-business insurance. The site offered an online quote service. I completed about 25 fields of information as requested, hit the "submit" button and waited for my quote to appear.

After about 30 seconds, a screen came back that said, "Our apologies, the quote system is temporarily down, please feel free to call the following phone number for a quote or to discuss other options appropriate for your business."

This error message had an unusual smell to it, don't you think? As if it knew all along it would fail. A phone number listed? It was almost as though they wanted me to call rather than get an online quote in the first place. I called the number, and got a voice message asking me to leave a name and number and a good time to call back.

Wow. This company had two chances to do business with me and failed both times. I'd spent 10 minutes filling out the form, then taken the time to call the company, and still didn't have that quote I was after.

After another call, I found out the problem was because of the company's legacy quote system and how it interfaced with the Web server. Even though it knew the system wasn't working, the company decided to leave the quote form up, so that by the time users got the error message, they would have invested enough time filling it out that they would be more likely to call the phone number given in the error screen.

Some might call that clever, but I call it making the user suffer because of your Web-legacy integration problem.

There's also another legacy problem here: the phone system. Why no Web-based customer support system? There are call center products now that include e-mail and Web-based options. Why make me call you at all? You could ask for my phone number when you had me fill out that quote request form. Why not ask me if I'd like you to call me?

Each of these cracks in the system has a legacy integration problem at its heart. Every b-to-b site with legacy systems is going through some form or another of this problem.

There is no perfect solution yet, but there will be. So for now, rather than make users suffer needlessly through your growing pains, make a commitment to reach out to them. At the very least, don't lead them into the quicksand.

Eric Ward is a consultant, speaker and writer who launched the Web's first awareness-building service for Web sites in 1994. Reach him at AdAge@netpost.com.

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