Inter@ctive Week - October, 1997

Putting the 'S' Into ISP

By Rebecca Wetzel

Of late, many Internet service providers seem to have forgotten that the "S" in ISP stand for service. In the exploding Internet connectivity market, many ISPs are focused so single-mindedly on building market share, that they have forgotten their raison d'etre - to serve customers.

Don't get me wrong. A growing revenue stream is a thing of beauty, and expanding market share is desirable. But the results of the Inter@ctive Week/PC Week/TeleChoice Inc. survey show that providers reap what they sow, and they should view their customer base as their garden. If they don't see to the needs of the plants in their garden, they won't reap a harvest - and they won't deserve to reap a harvest. If they do see to their customers' needs, a bounteous harvest will richly reward them.

The lack of customer focus among many ISPs may in part be due to the influence of the likes of Geoffrey Moore, a high-tech marketing pundit, for whom I have the utmost respect. In his recent book Inside the Tornado, now on many an executive's shelf, he makes a suggestion that, if taken literally, is bad advice for an ISP. He advises vendors in an exploding high-tech market to expend all energy in gaining market share and to "ignore your customer."

That may work for the Microsofts of the world, but if you are an ISP, think twice before you believe that this applies to you. Your product is a service, and successfully delivering a service means you must focus on, not ignore, your customer. This is especially true as today's new customers are less savvy and more service-needy than their early-adopter forerunners.

It is tough to focus on your customer when you are trying your best to keep up with relentless demand. Those of us who have lived this reality understand the predicament well. But if you are an ISP that wishes to remain viable over the long haul, you must consciously develop and guard your reputation. Happy customers are the key.

This doesn't mean that you must tailor your service to satisfy every customer request - which is what Moore really means by "ignoring the customer." It does mean, however, that you must make sure the service offered meets fundamental customer needs, with a few attributes that will delight customers thrown in, such as end-to-end problem resolution. You must celarly define what you will and won't provide, deliver on your promises, and be prepared to go the extra mile on occasion.

When businesses are ready to connect to the Internet or switch providers, how do they gather information needed to make their decision? They follow the same process any of us use to choose a service provider such as a doctor or a broker. They ask friends and acquaintances to share their experiences and make recommendations.

And what are they looking for? Our study shows that service availability and quality top the list of required traits. Increasingly, businesses are using Internet applications as a substitute for traditional telephone, fax, mail, overnight delivery and courier services, as well as to display their electronic face to the world via the World Wide Web.

The criticality of these applications makes service availability and quality vital to a company's business interests.

A basic goal of a smart ISP should be to establish the best possible delivery track record, and to get the word out about that record. Our study should help in this regard.

A smart ISP infuses service quality into every aspect of its corporate culture and makes customer focus its mantra. Customers should be wary of an ISP that puts market share acquisition ahead of customer focus. Don't buy Internet service based on the number of customers an ISP supposedly has. Customers should watch out for the ISP whose market share lust has eclipsed its customer focus.

This survey was undertaken as much to help ISPs better serve their customer as it was to help customers make well-informed decisions about which ISP to choose. TeleChoice is in the process of publishing a comprehensive report based on all the data gathered in this study.