Web Business 50 Awards - Profiles in Customer Service

Developing a successful intranet was Ford's first move on the road to e-commerce. When Ford's former CIO Jim Yost took the first steps toward creating a new intranet called My-ford.com, he had the full support and encouragement of former CEO Jacques Nasser. That support was crucial in shaping the company's internal website. Today, the site supports more than 175,000 employees who visit more than 500,000 times a day for anything from checking their benefits to getting the latest competitive information or signing up for company-run training classes. "The portal would not have happened without senior management support," says Martin Davis, program manager for what Ford calls its ePortal project.

Ford's intranet began as a way to give employees a personalised online environment and grew into an enterprisewide strategy to replace disparate desktop applications with standardised Web programs and access. The company has come a long way since it first provided an intranet to employees in 1996. "That was really just access to a search engine," Davis says.

The IT department started to revamp the site in 1999 when Nasser embarked on a business-to-employee initiative designed to bring every Ford staffer into the digital age. Nasser emphasised the importance of integrating Web capabilities into each of the company's business units in meetings and in Let's Chat, his weekly e-mail to every Ford employee. He also added e-commerce-related positions to all departments. Davis says Nasser wanted to create a corporate culture that embraced e-commerce.

"He didn't want to just spawn millions of websites, he wanted to have a rational approach to e-business," says Bipin Patel, director of management systems at Ford.

With Nasser's encouragement, Yost created the ePortal plan, which aimed to cut costs and increase efficiency by putting learning and collaboration tools online, and giving employees desktop access to HR and job-related information. Considering the large scope of the project -- the new intranet needed to reach almost 200,000 people at 950 locations worldwide -- funding and resources to support a network of that scale were imperative. Nasser made sure Yost had all the funding he needed, a move that entailed a big leap of faith, Davis says, because any return on the cost of the project was extremely difficult to measure in terms of tangible dollar savings.

"With a project like this, it's easy to demonstrate savings through an increase in efficiency, but it's very hard to translate that to ROI," he says. "They had the vision to see how the intranet would benefit the company."

The result was the May 2001 launch of Myford.com. The site gives Ford staff access to personal information, links to benefits and HR forms, demographics, salary history and general company news. In addition, each business unit posts employee-specific job information. For example, a project manager in the engineering division can access engineering project information through his view of the intranet page.

"We wanted to help people increase their business acumen by being able to read about company performance and what's new with the business, because that will help them make more informed decisions," Davis says.

Before the intranet launched, employees got information through time-consuming, paper-based manual processes, Davis says. Now, Ford employees can personalise their view of the intranet homepage by selecting what they want to see on the page and prioritising the links they use most. Sensitive information can be shielded. Managers can view financial data on company performance, while other employees can access only general performance information.

The portal has saved Ford millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours by putting applications and documents at employee's fingertips, Davis says. Future plans call for deploying Microsoft Net-Meeting and eRoom applications. Under current CIO Marv Adams, Patel and Davis are looking at creating business unit-specific portals within the central infrastructure.

For Ford, the intranet is not just a tool for employees to manage their benefits efficiently, it's a foundation for the company to become a digital business. In order for Ford to run a successful e-business with customers, suppliers and partners, its employees first had to be adept at using e-business technologies themselves, Davis says. "You're not properly doing e-business unless you're doing it inside the company as well," he says. "It starts on the inside."

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Low fares and comprehensive services help Southwest.com soar over the competition. Thirty years ago, Southwest Airlines put itself on the map with low fares, direct flights be-tween three Texas cities and attractive attendants. Today, the company still offers below-the-belt prices and has expanded its direct service to 58 cities in 30 states. During the past 28 years, Southwest has remained profitable in the face of oil crises, wars and recessions. And while many major airlines scaled back their schedules following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Southwest continued at full operation. The fourth-largest carrier in the United States, Southwest attributes its success to its low fares and customer service focus.

Of course, Southwest couldn't offer such low fares and dependable service without efficient internal operations. For instance, the company keeps its maintenance costs in check by exclusively flying Boeing 737s. It further reduces operational costs by primarily serving less congested satellite airports, which helps the company make better use of its pilots and planes because at those airports, aircraft spend less time waiting at the gate and more time in the air. Those tactics help the airline keep ticket prices down.

Now Southwest is exploiting the Internet to further its low-cost, happy-customer mission. The company launched Southwest.com on March 17, 1995, and began selling tickets online the following year. While it costs the airline US$10 to book a ticket through a brick-and-mortar travel agent, booking a ticket on the website costs just $1. Southwest.com saved the company $1 million in ticket booking and distribution costs last year alone.

Passenger revenues generated through the website soared from 8 percent in 1998 to 19 percent in 1999. Last year, Southwest.com generated 31 percent of the company's passenger revenues -- or $1.7 billion. Not bad considering Southwest initially invested $5 million to launch the site and spends $21 million a year to maintain it.

Now compare Southwest's online results with Delta, the third-largest carrier behind United and American. Last year, online sales accounted for just 9 percent of Delta's passenger revenues. In a recent survey of travel sites by Internet research firm Jupiter Media Metrix, Southwest.com ranked ahead of American's, Delta's and United's websites. Southwest.com is clearly the most successful airline site on the Web.

"They've done a lot of business, and their marketing campaign is absolutely brilliant," says Alan Alper, an analyst with Waltham, Mass.-based Gomez, a company that evaluates websites.

Since the company first started selling tickets online in 1996, Southwest has launched a variety of campaigns to motivate people to buy tickets via the site. For example, the airline sends a weekly electronic newsletter to 3.3 million subscribers that includes special offers available exclusively through Southwest.com. These incentives will be even more crucial to the airlines' survival in this tough economy and as Americans think twice about flying. While other airlines suspended Internet-only deals after the Sept. 11 attacks, Southwest continued to offer them.

Of course, no incentive would drive customers to the site if it weren't easy to use. Booking a ticket on Southwest.com is a straightforward process. Customers first enter their origin and destination cities, date of travel and number of passengers, select their flights and fares, confirm or change the resulting itinerary, enter their credit card information, and receive their confirmation. Unlike most travel sites, customers don't have to log in or register with Southwest.com to purchase tickets.

"We have no roadblocks. We're not tracking you to see your purchasing habits. It hasn't been a need of ours. We just want to provide convenience and ease of use so you can get where you want to go at a low fare," says Melanie Stillings, marketing automation manager for Southwest.com.

To that end, Stillings and her team have added all the tools travelers need to plan a trip. Since December 2000, Southwest.com has provided rental car reservations through Galileo, a computer reservation system. As of last March, customers could book hotel rooms on the site. Last June, it began posting flight status information. "We are making ourselves a one-stop travel shop," says Stillings.

Adding car and hotel reservation capabilities to the site just months before the company pulled out of Travelocity.com, which also offered those features yet generated less than 1 percent of Southwest's ticket sales, was somewhat prophetic. It also prepared Southwest for its decision not to partner with American, Continental, Delta, Northwest and United last June when those airlines formed Orbitz, another one-stop online travel shop. It wouldn't make sense for Southwest to sell tickets on its own site without also providing a way for customers to reserve hotel rooms and rental cars, while other online agents from which the company was trying to divorce itself attracted customers by offering the whole travel kit and caboodle.

Southwest doesn't partner with other travel sites because it can't control the service a Southwest customer gets from the online agent nor can it guarantee the ease of buying a ticket online. "If we make it harder to purchase online than we do using the phone, then we're going to lose the battle of low cost," Stillings says.

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The American Cancer Society provides answers and support to anyone in need. Sandra Smiling was looking for information on the Web, but her concerns weren't as mundane as finding a cheap flight or getting a great deal on Elvis memorabilia. The 51-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., native was a breast cancer patient. "I was looking for someone who was facing the same dilemma," she says. "I needed answers."

Smiling found what she needed at Cancer.org, the website of American Cancer Society (ACS). Now, after undergoing a bilateral radical mastectomy, she visits the site two or three times a day. She finds practical information, such as whether to take Femara or Tamoxifen after her surgery, and emotional support from fellow survivors who opted for the same type of breast reconstruction. "This site uplifted my spirits and induced a spiritual healing within me," she says.

Smiling is one of more than 330,000 visitors to Cancer.org every month. However, the legion of satisfied "customers" (as ACS executives call them) still wasn't enough to please the organisation's leaders. They believed the site needed big improvements -- $7 million worth, in fact. In August, the ACS launched a new website.

"Customer expectations continually evolve, and you have to meet those expectations," says James Miller, director of Internet strategy. "If you're really good, you go beyond them, and your customers say, 'Wow, that's something I didn't even know that I needed.'" For Terry Music, strategic business manager for information delivery and Miller's boss, the changes to the website became personal. After moving from Tampa, Fla., to Atlanta to take the position at ACS headquarters, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 1999.

Music spent the next 14 months going through treatment. She considered herself lucky to have moved to Atlanta because she had access to top oncologists at Emory University, as well as close contact with the chief medical director and surgeon at ACS. "Within the organisation, we always talk about how we can help people turn information into knowledge, and that's what they were doing for me," says Music. "I knew that the ACS as a whole could play that role for others, and I began to strive to make it easier for our customers to get information in a way that makes the most sense for them."

For the relaunch of Cancer.org, Music and Miller worked with Sapient, which had clinical psychologists and cultural anthropologists spend time with cancer patients at various stages to develop an "experiential model." That model outlined medical issues and personal questions like, "Why am I tired all the time?" and "Will chemo hurt?" that arise during the stages of cancer. Miller then rebuilt the Cancer.org site around that model. "That's how we went from a good but rather static experience to the dynamic site we have today," explains Miller. He worked with an 18-person team and 85 Sapient staffers to consolidate and reorganise the content, build the online communities and provide new tools to help users with every foreseeable situation.

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6 digital transformation success stories