Companies must cater to e-customers

All this week, the future of the Internet has been hyped at the Internet and Electronic Commerce Conference and Expo here in New York. But on Wednesday, the Net's effect on businesses received some sobering scrutiny.

As the Internet evolves, companies will lose control as customers become empowered, said Edward Horowitz, corporate executive vice president at Citigroup, said on Wednesday.

Customers won't care about business matters; they'll care about their own needs -- and expect them to be met, Horowitz said. Businesses will have to personalise content to satisfy those customers, he said. That will lead to difficult obstacles for businesses to overcome.

Although technology problems will be solved over time, the "overriding issues" for companies hoping to maximise global profits will be to bridge the education and social gaps between rich and poor nations, he said.

Companies will also have to close the trust gap with customers by creating a bill of rights, Horowitz said. Customers "will need to know that the cyberworld won't take its money and information... (and) will stand behind the transaction" in the event instructions don't get to their destination, he said.

To turn a profit, companies will have to pool goods with other companies and jointly sell them, and not be afraid to have other companies sell their products, Horowitz said. And they have to be prepared to make long-term investments and not expect immediate profitability.

Businesses will still need personal interactions with customers, as well as a Web presence, he predicted. Horowitz also cautioned businesses and consumers alike to be aware of the dangers of Internet growth. The Internet holds much promise, but there is "no distrust checkpoint, no truth standing". And that, he said, can lead to "information madness".

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