The advent of the Internet and related Web technologies has created an easily accessible link between a firm and its customers, and has provided opportunities to a firm to use information technology to support supplementary after-sale services associated with a product or service. It has been widely recognized that supplementary services are an important source of customer value and of competitive advantage as the characteristics of the product itself. Many of these supplementary services are information-based and need not be co-located with the product, so more and more companies are delivering these services electronically. Net-based customer service, which is defined as an Internet-based computerized information system that delivers services to a customer, therefore, is the core infrastructure for supplementary service provision. The importance of net-based customer service in delivering supplementary after-sale services associated with product has been well documented. The strategic advantages of well-implemented net-based customer service are enhanced customer loyalty and higher lock-in of customers, and a resulting reduction in competition and the consequent increase in profits. However, not all customers utilize such net-based customer service. The digital divide is the phenomenon in our society that captures the observation that not all customers have equal access to computers. Socioeconomic factors such as race, gender, and education level are strongly related to Internet accessibility and ability to use. This is due to the differences in the ability to bear the cost of a computer, and the differences in self-efficacy in the use of a technology, among other reasons. This concept, applied to e-commerce, has been called the "e-commerce divide." High Internet penetration is not eradicating the digital divide and e-commerce divide as one would hope. Besides, to accommodate personalized support, a customer must often provide personal information to the firm. This personal information includes not only name and address, but also preferences information and perhaps valuation information. However, many recent studies show that consumers may not be willing to share information about themselves due to concerns about privacy online. Due to the e-commerce divide, and due to privacy and security concerns of the customer for sharing personal information with firms, limited numbers of customers adopt net-based customer service. The limited level of customer adoption of net-based customer service affects the firm profits and the customers' welfare. We use a game-theoretic model in which we model the net-based customer service system as a mechanism to enhance customers' loyalty. We model a market entry scenario where a firm (the incumbent) uses the net-based customer service system in inducing loyalty in its customer base. The firm sells one product through the traditional retailing channels and at a price set for these channels. Another firm (the entrant) enters the market, and having observed the price of the incumbent firm (and after deducing the loyalty levels in the customer base), chooses its price. The profits of the firms and the surplus of the two customers segments (the segment that utilizes net-based customer service and the segment that does not) are analyzed in the Stackelberg leader-follower model of competition between the firms. We find that an increase in adoption of net-based customer service by the customer base is not always desirable for firms. With low effectiveness in enhancing customer loyalty, firms prefer a high level of customer adoption of net-based customer service, because an increase in adoption rate decreases competition and increases profits. A firm in an industry where net-based customer service is highly effective loyalty mechanism, on the other hand, prefers a low level of adoption by customers.
III. Analysis and Propositions