It's The People, Stupid

Some founders forget that flesh and blood are what will make or break a B2B site

An Internet software executive once told me he couldn't believe all the fuss about the auction site eBay Inc. (EBAY) "They're not doing anything," he said. "They just get people to show up together." Gee, is that all? eBay may have had a lot of luck on its side, but it understood one thing early on: It's the people, stupid. More than any other e-commerce site, eBay has created a community of people who can do business with each other on their own terms. In fact, it has amassed more than 16 million members solely from word of mouth.

People like eBay not just because it's fun but because they get a visceral sense that there's somebody behind the "Place Bid" button. And they're right. Almost every time I buy something on eBay, I'm shocked at the intensely personal service: Merchants offer to keep an eye out for other items I might want, and if something's wrong with an order they fall all over themselves to fix it.

The founders of far too many Web sites, whether aimed at consumers or at businesses, seem to have watched Field of Dreams once too often. They build a Web site, and... well, actually, nobody comes. That's why, as Mainspring Inc. analyst Ian Ball cruelly quips, you could charge most business-to-business marketplaces' annual transactions on your credit card and not hit your limit.

Indeed, remembering that buyers are people is even more critical for B2B sites. In a recent report, Boston Consulting Group Inc. said only 11% of the $4.8 trillion in B2B transactions it forecasts by 2004 will involve online price negotiations. The rest will be completed by phone or in person. Says BCG Vice-President Andy Blackburn: "In the end, you still have to have a conversation."

The perception--in some cases, justified--that Web sites have little behind them other than banks of servers and a snotty 'tude has kept many potential customers from even trying them out. That's why it's good to see that some are starting to help companies move those relationships to the Web instead of trying to eliminate them.

Lab pharmaceutical supplies site Inc. (SQST), for instance, hired salespeople from distributors such as Baxter International Inc. (BAX) and VWR Scientific Products. Says Marlis Elliott, a purchasing manager at Cell Genesys Inc.: "The main reason I was willing to look at was because of Marty" Livingston, a former Baxter salesman now at SciQuest. The company has tried to keep that personal touch on its site, where the help desk is called AskJoe--originally staffed by customer care director Joe Bumgarner.

Clearly, this approach can be even more appealing online, where it often feels like a neutron bomb just hit, leaving lots of pixels but no people. The job site, with the motto "Job placement with a pulse," has hit the mark: Its 300 recruiters on staff personally call online job seekers.

Does this mean the Web's vaunted efficiencies are a crock? I don't think so. The Web can eliminate the need for people to punch a cash register or mop the linoleum. And ultimately, it will automate a lot more business processes. But golf games, power breakfasts, and phone calls will remain crucial business tools for a long time to come.

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