Get ready for real time. By 2004, more than 70 per cent of the e-business applications your customers see will need to offer near-instantaneous integration with your back-end systems, or they won’t be doing their jobs, according to Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group.

The reason is simple – slow response will equal bad customer service, says Roy Schulte, vice-president of Gartner’s application integration and middleware practice. As customer expectations increase, their willingness to wait for feedback after placing an order, asking a question or making any other request will diminish. Users will also become frustrated if they find they can get faster service over the phone than they can with a browser – putting added pressure on your call centre that the Web was supposed to help alleviate.

As a result, the days of being able to accept an order on-line, only to have it faxed to a distributor or rekeyed into a back-end order tracking system will quickly pass, Schulte says. And, he adds, companies that want to update their systems to provide faster response need to look beyond hard-dollar-cost justifications. Although it’s true that moving to an automated system may let companies eliminate some clerical help, the real money will come as a result of the impact the faster system will have on the business.

For instance, Schulte notes, if a company can reduce its order-processing error rate from 7 per cent to 4 per cent by updating systems, that alone could save millions of dollars a year. Speedier response can also mean more repeat business as well as the chance to recognize revenue more quickly: The faster your orders go out the door, the sooner you can charge customer credit cards. And that means more money on your bottom line.