The Internet has taken self-service to new heights.

It has proven a paradise for shoppers who don’t want to be bothered by pushy salespeople. On the Internet, you can shop for cars, compare features, price and financing options, locate discounts and determine dealer invoice — without ever being asked how much you are ready to spend by somebody trailing you around the parking lot.

You can order on the Web, complete with financing and insurance, without wondering who the sales guy really talks to in the back office. Here, you are the most important customer and can do things at your own pace.

Buying a car on the Web is still as unusual for some as was using ATMs when they first arrived. Today, most people swear by ATMs, preferring the 24/7 availability and convenience over lines at the bank. Few remember that banks introduced ATMs as a way to save money, to serve more customers with fewer clerks by moving nonvalue-added transactions (no fees) away from the counter.

On the Web, there really never was a choice — unless the customer did the work, nobody could do it. Pure online businesses saw this from the beginning as bricks-and-mortar companies watched and wondered. Most companies are just starting to let customers help themselves — allowing employees to focus on value-added services.

This is true for both B2C and B2B. Order-takers are now customer service representatives and add value by dealing with issues instead of simply interpreting customer input into a computer. Online merchants can devote resources to providing better selection, lower prices and, in some cases, free advice on the product your customers are investigating, as well as suggesting other products similar customers have ordered.

The 24/7 availability of the Internet allows on-line retailers to take orders on weekends, after normal business hours, worldwide, without a single order-taker to pay. And customers like it. They enjoy phenomenal selection, easy price comparison, low prices and easy access to information.

The number of customers insisting on dealing with people is rapidly decreasing. For example, a patient can investigate that embarrassing rash online without confronting the family doctor. Many also like the ability to sit at home in pajamas while planning a party and instructing their supermarket to choose the ingredients and have them ready for pick-up same afternoon.

Cleverly designed Web sites hide multisystem complexity. EAI (Enterprise Application Integration) allows a company’s purchasing system to include a vendor’s system in the workflow, effectively eliminating the manual process.

Many Web stores operate almost without employees, having vendors drop ship directly to customers. This also applies to multibillion dollar companies and distributors that interface directly with their customers’ order-taking systems. A customer, perhaps a retailer, enters the order in his own system.

A distributor is selected based on availability and the purchase order for the distributor is automatically generated and mirrored with an order in the distributors system, all online, with no time-consuming manual ordering process.

But you don’t have to look to the Internet to see that people are ready to do companies a favor by doing their work for them, and even pay for it. Just think about it the next time you pay to use an ATM.

Lately, however, business owners have found smart ways to make their customers do their work for them. Some grocery chains now allow customers to scan their own groceries and pay for them in a machine.

Airlines allow customers to plan their travel and buy tickets online. Not only does the airline get increased revenue from those who appreciate easy ordering, they avoid paying agents’ fees while obtaining a direct relationship with their ultimate customers — the travelers. Considering the benefits, it was surprising how long it took before they offered automated check-in kiosks and other do-it-yourself services.

There are still many opportunities, and so far, customers have been quite happy to do the work for free. One day, they may actually be paid for it. Henrik Risvang ([email protected]) is vice president of professional services for Fathom Interactive LLC, the oldest e-business solution provider in the Midwest. Fathom delivers world class e-business consulting, training, design and implementation solutions that integrate people, process and technology. Reach him at (216) 861-5951, ext. 236.