““The most powerful drive in the ascent of man is his pleasure in his own skill. He loves to do what he does well and, having done it well, he loves to do it better.””Jacob Bronowski

Most of what has been said about the Internet and the new economy has ranged between wishful thinking and foolishness. But one thing is true: The Internet is changing customer service.

The nature of the medium itself is raising expectations in three areas. First, customers expect faster order processing. Second, they want quicker responses to their inquiries. Third, they are becoming accustomed to more personal and more frequent attention.

In a letter to a marketing magazine called 1 on 1, Michael J. Katz, president of Blue Penguin Development, described the “perfect” customer-service experience. He ordered a wireless service through the GetConnected website. A few days later, he e-mailed the company to inquire about a rebate. He received a response within minutes. The response included the text of his original message so he didn’t have to guess what it was in reference to. It was personalized, was signed by a real person (“Jason”), and provided specific answers to his questions. It was a truly personalized response, and it took place in three minutes! As Katz says, “It’s pretty hard to feel anything but warm and fuzzy about a company that turns inquiries around so quickly.”

A recent survey by the Peppers and Rogers Group, the Stamford, CT-based management-consulting firm that publishes 1 on 1, found that businesses are becoming increasingly customer-centric. One-third of the responding companies have implemented customer-relationship management (CRM) programs, and nearly all (93%) plan to have a formal program in place within five years. Similarly, one-third of them are currently organized around customer needs. In three years, over two-thirds of them (69%) will be.

You have to take statistics from an interested group with some degree of skepticism, but these findings are confirmed by a recent Gartner Group business-technology poll: 31% of Gartner’s respondents had live CRM initiatives, and 68% are planning them.

It makes sense. The Internet gives businesses a low- or no-cost way to communicate faster and more frequently with their customers. Customers, by and large, want to be pampered. The more and better attention you give them, the more responsive they will be to your offers.

That’s not always true of all kinds of attention. But generally speaking, if you know your customer you know what he wants. And if you can give him that – in greater quantities and higher quality – he should be grateful.

My own experience confirms this. The businesses I work with that provide better-than-ordinary customer service enjoy higher retention rates and greater back-end sales. And I can’t help but think this relationship will become more pronounced in the future as more companies go online.

Just yesterday, I was speaking to a guy who owns an Internet supplement business. He said that the majority of his customers are reordering online and expect almost immediate confirmation and delivery, within three or four days.

Immediate order acknowledgement. Four-day fulfillment. Those are pretty high standards, but I think they will become the norm in a relatively short time.

If you agree, you should take a serious look at what you are doing now – at the level of service you are providing – and figure out what you have to do to get up to speed.