Setting up computer links with customers makes life easier all around

Manufacturers and their suppliers were the first to see how linking their companies' computers could speed up all kinds of transactions: ordering, shipping, invoicing, payments, returns, and so on. It was an obvious application of information technology: computers can do this kind of data processing faster and more accurately than people ever could. Besides, it was boring work. Who enjoys checking packing slips against invoices and reconciling discrepancies?

Everyone expected speed and accuracy from the new arrangement. But in subtle ways, the computer-to-computer communications also strengthened intercompany business ties. No manufacturer today sticks with a supplier just because the two companies are on-line together. The supplier must also perform well. But all other things being equal, having the computer link is one good reason for staying with the vendor you've got.

Does the same idea apply in service businesses? The folks at Rossin Greenberg Seronick & Hill Inc. (RGS&H), a Boston advertising agency, think it might. They, too, are finding some surprising paybacks from hooking up electronically with a client.

A little more than a year ago, RGS&H gave Paula Goodwin, the media coordinator at Star Market Co. across the river in Cambridge, her own electronic mailbox in the agency's management information system. Star, a supermarket chain, is RGS&H's most active client. Using the modem on her own personal computer, Goodwin can tap into the ad agency's information system. She can send and receive messages and documents. She can call up information from the files she is authorized to see on her screen -- just as if she were sitting in RGS&H's South Boston offices. The ad firm had originally hoped that the electronic hookup would speed communications between the two companies and maybe save a few dollars on taxi and messenger charges. It has done that -- and more.

The hookup has unexpectedly helped the agency's creative people do their jobs better; made the account executive more productive; probably improved agency cash flow; and, evidence suggests, strengthened the business bond between the agency and its client. Here's how.

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* Information, as anyone who has ever waited anxiously for a letter or a phone call knows, has a time value. News received today is worth more than the same news received tomorrow -- if only because it gives you just that much more time to act on it. In this respect the computer link between RGS&H and Star has made copywriter Court Crandall's life easier.

It used to require several days to get his ad copy typed, cabbed over to Goodwin at Star, and returned to him with comments. Now, he writes his copy on a personal computer, Goodwin gets it with a couple of keystrokes, and Crandall can have it and her comments back within hours. So, instead of having a day to make changes before the weekly deadline, he's got a couple of days. Whether Crandall's finished product actually improves depends, of course, on how he uses this found time, but at least the time is available to him.

* Prelink, if Goodwin had a question, she telephoned Carole Alexander, her RGS&H account executive. If Alexander was at her desk and free, she took the call. Otherwise, Goodwin left a message, and Alexander called her back. Now, Goodwin often can get the answer herself from a computer file, and more to the point, Alexander spends less of her time acting as a conduit for information that is available elsewhere. How the account executive uses the time saved is another issue. Maybe she handles more accounts or spends more time strategizing on the accounts she already has. The link only makes the time available and the added productivity or creativity possible.

* The condition of a client's billing account and how to deal with overdue balances are, in most businesses, sensitive subjects. You want your money but not at the expense of unnecessarily offending the client. Whose job is it to speak to the client, and who does she talk to there? It's tricky stuff, but not with Star and RGS&H. Billing data is right there on the screen for Goodwin and Alexander both to see. Because account information is more out in the open, the issue of billing is not so touchy. It's no big deal for the account executive to mention to the media coordinator what is obvious to them both.

"I can look at our billings and see what's current, whether my accounting division is paying the invoices I send to them," says Goodwin. Ernie Capobianco, RGS&H's chief financial officer, says that Star's account stays more current than it did before they brought Goodwin into the system.

* Finally comes bonding. Capobianco believes that the relationship between the two companies is somehow deeper and richer because they are computer linked. RGS&H president Neal Hill thinks so, too. It isn't something anyone can prove or measure. But electronic mail lets Star and the agency exchange messages they would never write in a letter or even telephone about -- the answer to a casual question raised earlier or some gentle razzing about an upcoming intercompany softball game, for instance. RGS&H chairman Jack Rossin, vacationing on Nantucket the summer before last, typed an idea for the Star account into his portable computer and later sent it off via electronic mail. If he hadn't, the idea likely would have been lost, along with his tan, before Rossin returned to work. That Rossin cared enough about the account to send Goodwin the message during his vacation must have impressed her. This past summer, she says, she made sure that she had a message waiting for Rossin the first time he logged on, poolside.

There is a human dimension to the business relationship that wouldn't exist with out the link. "They're like one of us," says Alexander, "like they're down the hall." Perhaps, but a couple of little things keep Goodwin from seeing it exactly that way. The link would be a lot more effective, Goodwin says, if she could stay logged on continuously instead of having to dial through on her modem every time she wants to send a message or check her mailbox. And it would also help, she says, if the PC she uses were in her office instead of across the hall. Capobianco is working on it. The agency will give her a PC, he says, if Star won't.

Revolutionary? No, just evolutionary, as companies such as RGS&H begin to discover the hidden powers of microcomputer technology to change the way they work. The link with Star has been an experiment for the agency. Now, Capobianco wants to bring other clients with heavy communications needs, such as the Massachusetts Port Authority and Sperry Topsider, into the network. Not every client shares his enthusiasm, though. Some are technophobic and want nothing to do with the agency's computer. Those he won't push, because they, after all, are hiring the agency, not the other way around. Others take offense. "What?" one reacted, "you don't want to talk to us anymore?" No, that isn't it at all. "We have to change their attitudes," Capobianco says. He has to show that used imaginatively, technology can increase the opportunity for, and the quality of, talking.

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STIMULATING IDEAS

Why electronic mail is good for your customers

Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft Corp. and a man who should know something about getting the most out of information technology, says that electronic mail is crucial to stimulating the flow of ideas inside his company. So why not use it between companies? No good reason not to.

* Although not every executive or entrepreneur acts as if they believe this, people do work better when they're informed than when they're kept in the dark. Electronic mail is yet another device that helps spread information. If a client can take a look at your internal job order on the computer, for instance, he or she might spot a mistake or misinterpretation before your people spend time turning out the wrong product. Why not share the information?

* Maybe you're not around when I get this great idea to bounce off you. I could wait and hope you'll be around tomorrow, but by tomorrow I may have lost enthusiasm. Electronic mail lets me tell you now while I'm still hot, even if you don't read it until days later.

* Would you go to the trouble of writing a letter that said simply, "Thanks! Great job"? No, letters demand a certain protocol -- a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even in a memo people feel obliged to say more than they really have to.

And then there's the paper. What do you do with this largely gratuitous communication -- trash it? File it? Answer it? With electronic mail you can just say "Thanks" and claim the points for expressing your gratitude without cluttering up someone's in-box. With a keystroke or two, the recipient can send your memo off to oblivion or file it electronically if it deserves saving.

* The mail link doesn't eliminate meetings -- at least, it shouldn't. Go ahead and meet. It's the communications before and afterward that electronic mail enhances.