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08:34 AM

Get It To Them Fast

Customers are the next group to benefit from real-time information

On Thursday, Feb. 20, Spike McRoy made his fourth shot on the par-five 11th hole at the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif., putting him one stroke under par on the first day of the PGA Tour's Nissan Open golf tournament. McRoy did it by knocking his tee shot 270 yards to the intermediate rough, followed by a 228-yard second stroke that put the ball 72 yards from the cup, and a third swing that landed on the green. At 3:29 p.m., McRoy's 13-foot, 4-inch putt clinked into the bottom of the hole for a birdie.

Steve Evans, VP of IS with PGA Tour Inc. Photo courtesy of Eric Brietenbach, location courtesy TPC at Sawgrass.

PGA Tour's real-time scoring setup is mission critical, VP of IS Evans says.
You didn't have to walk the course with the gallery to witness this performance or even get the Golf Channel on cable. McRoy's outing, and that of 143 other pro golfers in the tournament, was reported stroke by stroke, as it happened, over PGA Tour's Web site. The effort that goes into collecting and disseminating the results of every stroke of every golfer -- even a middle-of-the-pack grinder like Spike, who wound up missing the cut at the Nissan Open -- shows just how far some organizations are going to deliver nothing less than up-to-the-second information to their customers. "We think it's a really interesting and exciting opportunity for the fan," says Steve Evans, VP of IS with PGA Tour Inc., a membership organization for pro golfers.

The customer is set to become the next big constituency to benefit from real-time information. That's one of the major findings in a new survey by InformationWeek Research that gauges where companies are in their efforts to become real-time businesses. In a survey of 261 business-technology professionals, 82% cite customer support as one of the areas that would benefit most from speedier access to information. When asked what group of people would benefit most, 77% say their customers.

A vast majority of business technologists have decided that real-time information can be used to improve customer relationships in two important ways. First, managers and customer-service staff can use timely data to do a better job of giving customers the products, services, and support that keep them loyal. But, going a step further, real-time information can be delivered directly to customers as a way of adding value on top of other products and services that a company provides them.

"We wanted to get closer to our customers, to provide them the next logical extension of communication between us," says Peg Nicholson, senior VP and CIO at Acushnet Co., a sporting-goods manufacturer, explaining a portal her company created so its business customers could access real-time information about their orders. "We thought we could make ourselves available to our customers even when we weren't around."

Increased customer satisfaction is one rationale for pushing information to clients at the blink of an eye; increased revenue is an even better one. PGA Tour is turning its real-time golfer-tracking capabilities into a revenue-generating service, introduced last month on Yes, diehard fans will get a kick out of the ability to track every player, hole, and shot of a PGA tournament, but they'll have to pay for it. The TourCast service starts at $9.95 a month.

Customers First

Delta Air Lines Inc. expects to maximize customer revenue by minimizing customer hassle, in part by distributing real-time information where it's easy for travelers to find. When M. Michele Burns, Delta's executive VP and CFO, outlined the carrier's strategic initiatives at an industry event last month, the plan included increasing per-customer revenue by reducing what Burns called the airport "hassle factor." Two examples: Delta is adding display screens at airport gates that provide up-to-the-minute information on flight, seating, standby, and upgrade status, and weather conditions at destination cities. And the airline's upcoming low-fare service, called Song, will broadcast connecting-gate information to video monitors at each seat in an airplane.

The underlying systems used to deliver real-time information to customers can range from the straightforward to the elaborate. Acushnet is a fairly simple example. Using DataMirror Corp.'s Transformation Server data-replication software, Acushnet pushes data about customer orders, invoices, and payments from an IBM AS/400 to a Microsoft SQL Server database. From there, Click Commerce Inc.'s Partner Portal application makes the information readily available to the retailers that buy and distribute Acushnet's products, which include Titleist golf balls and FootJoy shoes.

Then there's PGA Tour's real-time infrastructure. Because a golf tournament involves dozens of players on an 18-hole course over several days, gathering data requires some fancy footwork, literally. "Other sports have multiple cameras focused on one ball," VP of IS Evans says. "Here, nobody can see it all."

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