Beware of panaceas offered by Web consultants

Did anyone notice the pall of smoke at the beginning of the year 2000? It wasn’t caused by Y2K disasters but by companies burning piles of consultants’ reports, recommendations, and statements of work done for which payment had been made.

The consultants had a field day (days?) with literally millions of dollars pouring into their coffers. The fact that entry into 2000 was no different than any other year did not seem to cause any harsh criticism of the consultants or of the prophets of doom.

Consultants must be blessed with the same aura as the TV religious practitioners (“Hallelujah, I push her back and she is cured – now give me your money”).

But the burning question is – where are those consultants now? Well, if one is to look carefully at the marketplace, their next prime target has emerged.

It’s called e-commerce.

One example of the flimflam is a TV ad portraying a CEO (?) addressing presumably his company officers. “What do we do next?” he asks. An excellent set of actors portray a glum group with no idea of the next direction of the company.

An incredible scene, is it not? The ad, for a Web services organization, then tells them that e-commerce is their saviour. Now I have a problem with this. To tout a solution without a problem sounds like another ploy of dubious worth.

Any sensible CEO who is considering e-commerce should ask two important questions of his consultant (or internal guru). The first is “What is my problem?” and the second is, “How exactly is e-commerce going to solve it?”

There is some irrational concept of e-commerce being the magic pill that cures all problems and is able to save companies from impending disaster. Stats Can says less than one per cent of Canadian companies are using e-commerce, and et al’s horrific losses doesn’t seem to dampen the e-commerce ardour.

One just has to look at the Web pages out there to see that many, including those of large companies, have no purpose other than to be a Web page.

In the 70’s VPs and presidents (we had no CEOs then) boasted at the golf club bar of the installation of a computer. They quoted size, cost and model number, but could not explain what it did.

Now the same category of company officers boast of their company’s Web page. But, again, they very often cannot explain exactly what it does. One has to wonder if the officers of the company actually try to use their own Web page.

Even multimillion dollar companies have Web pages that are heavily flawed.

Many Web pages quote useless jargon such as the puerile mission statement, or give profiles of the company officers, or ramble on about their history. But if you want to know what they make, in what sizes and at what cost, you have to call them (if they give you a telephone number).

Have you noticed the great number of organizations that forget to show their address, or an inquiries telephone number, or bury such information under some misnamed button?

So one has to assume that they have been influenced by the new e-commerce trend and maybe hired consultants to help them enter the new age. The bottom line here is, if you are putting up a Web page: think. I may be unique, but when I go to a Web page, I go for information related to the product that that organization manufactures. It would seem reasonable that the Web page would be able to give me the information I require or, if not, where I can get that information.

Before anyone embarks on e-commerce, they should clearly define the problem it is going to solve. Saying it will “increase market exposure” or “increase sales” is just not good enough.

Is e-commerce going to make product information more readily available? Is it going to allow on-line ordering? Or, is it being implemented just because it sounds good?

I saw an ad in a national paper for a company that boldly proclaimed its Web

site, and being curious, I used my steam-driven 486 ( 33Mhz, 8MB running Win 95, running as a file server, fax server and client) to get to the page. It was beautiful. Obviously an expensive rendering from a Web page designer guru, and I gazed in wonder. The only problem was that it gave no more information than the magazine ads – so what purpose was the Web page?

Did the company really believe that people are so starved for advertising that they will search the ‘net for ads? So, if you do put up a Web page, make sure you know why. Otherwise you may be just another SUV buyer.

Robinson has been involved with high-tech Canadian star-up companies – including Cisco, Sytek and Comten – for more than 30 years. He can be reached at