Crossroads attendees trade tips, concerns

Some 400 business and IT executives converged on The Wigwam Resort in Phoenix, Arizona this week for Open Systems Advisors Inc.'s annual Crossroads Conference, which ended last night. Here's a sampling of what the attendees talked about during the event.

First, some audience polls. Asked what keeps them up at night, a group of about 150 executives put "keeping up with business strategy" at the top of the list. That was chosen by 48 percent of the respondents, with "IT budgets being too small" and "worries about retaining talent" trailing behind at 28 percent and 23 percent, respectively.

On another question, the executives -- who were split about equally between technology users and vendors, with most having at least some responsibility for the business side of operations -- almost deadlocked over their top business priority for this year. Installing customer-facing applications was chosen by 43 percent, while "value delivery" was picked by 41 percent. Another 16 percent cited infrastructure projects.

Building an online business. Fiera.com is a Miami-based service provider and online retailer that sells to customers in the US and Latin America. The company grew to US$15 million in revenue during its first full year of operations, and Rich Pirrotta, vice president and general manager of e-commerce at Fiera.com, offered the following advice to other e-commerce retailers:

Understand the customer experience by using your own Web site at least once a month.

Empower customer service workers, perhaps by reclassifying them as salaried staff rather than hourly personnel. That gives them more autonomy and can increase their commitment and creativity, Pirrotta said. For example, when Fiera.com ran short of some items during the holiday season, its workers located the products on eBay Inc.'s online auction site and bought them for customers.

Include shipping charges and all other relevant information upfront to ensure that you don't end up with abandoned online shopping carts. A Latin American customer who orders a $12 music CD over the Web from a U.S. retailer can see the total price jump to $56 once shipment fees, taxes and customs duties are added, Pirrotta said.

Adapt to the way business is done in the locale you're entering. For example, Pirrotta said few people use credit cards in Mexico. To sell products there, Fiera.com figured out a way to accept the kinds of payments that Mexican shoppers are accustomed to: cash-on-demand notices and installment plans.

Focus on competitive advantage. Gordon Kerr is a co-founder, CIO and chief technology officer at Cbeyond Communications, a local exchange carrier and application service provider that managed to enter the market there by spending just $12 million on its technical infrastructure -- when, Kerr said, the barrier to entry used to be about $1 billion.

How was that done? Cbeyond focused internally on the 20 percent of its systems that provide potential advantages over its rivals and outsourced the rest, Kerr said. Companies that aren't start-ups couldn't do that right away, he added. But they can begin moving in that direction by working with a small group of customers as if they were new arrivals in the market, he said.

What's the secret to building a successful online community? Listen to your members, advised Kevin Book, senior director of technology at The Motley Fool Inc. Book said the Alexandria, Va.-based online financial adviser has launched 16 major versions of its Web site in four years as it sought to "improve the Fool," or give customers what they asked for. Some of lessons learned by the company include the following:

With Internet advertising in decline, seek a diversified revenue stream. Motley Fool includes a radio program and 1.7 million books sold among its product lines. "If your [online] community is your whole business, you're probably not sleeping very well right now," Book said.

Use customer service people to troubleshoot, to support Web-site visitors and to sell services or ancillary products to those customers.

Expect your audience to range from addicts to occasional visitors who are seeking quick information. The conference attendees fell widely across that range, in fact: 61 percent said they had occasionally or never visited an online community, 31 percent said they are active participants or "lurkers" and 7 percent said they are community dropouts who tried and gave up.

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