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TMC Labs
January 2001



Swallow Information Systems, Inc.
Beverly, MA
Ph: 800-647-9460; Fx: 978-867-6012

Price: Approximate server license price for core CHARTER manager application, $29,995 (scaled up or down by organization size and degree of customization). Pricing variable for frontline module.

Every now and then, TMC Labs learns of a new product that, while not feasible to thoroughly review in our usual style and format, looks truly exciting and of potential benefit to our marketplace. CHARTER frontline from Swallow Information Systems, Inc. is one of those products. Due to the fact that Swallow Information Systems employs a customized approach to software development, we are unable to provide you with the usual details of the product's documentation, installation procedures and operational testing. Nevertheless, the concept of the products was too compelling to let slip by without at least an overview, hence this "first look" at the product's features, functionality and areas for improvement as opposed to a true TMC Labs product review.

The main tenets of customer relationship management (CRM) essentially constitute a return to basic business. Among them, and most important to this overview is the concept that it's easier to sell people products and services when you know what they really want, so gather feedback wherever you can. And businesses are realizing that real-world opinions from real-world customers can be infinitely more valuable than those garnered through stilted focus groups and expensive analytical guesswork.

To most, CRM product vendors have focused their attention on those places where companies and their customers interface via some form of technology -- whether by telephone, e-mail or the Web. What they've neglected to account for is the amount of feedback lost in situations where a company's primary contact with its customers is face-to-face, in a retail environment.

Swallow Information Systems is hoping to help companies leverage interpersonal contacts through CHARTER frontline, a module within a greater CRM suite called CHARTER continuum. frontline is essentially a stripped-down version of manager, the suite's core customer service application. In many ways, manager appears to be standard CRM fare: located at a company's headquarters, it allows call center agents to record customer interactions (including feedback) while assigning and prioritizing related actions, all the while interacting with Oracle or SQL databases to make customer histories available to all departments.

frontline is usually installed along with customer databases and the rest of the CHARTER continuum suite on a dedicated NT or Novell server located at a company's headquarters. A Web-serving application -- usually MS Internet Information Server -- delivers the frontline component so remote users can access it through a browser. The result is that retail managers on the literal "front lines" can quickly enter into simple, automatically dated note fields information on customer problems, resulting actions taken and any direct feedback garnered as a result of the interaction. They can also assign or address previously assigned pending actions, the status of which are updated by the system just as in a call center application like manager. In this way, frontline basically allows a company's retail arm to leverage the functionality of a more complex CRM application in a simpler, Web-based form streamlined for a retail environment.

As for corporate headquarters, the marketing people can now extend the sweep of their scythes during feedback harvest, since frontline posts information entered at remote locations to the central customer databases.

Current versions of the product allow only a one-way relationship between frontline and manager. In other words, while headquarters can gain access to information gathered by remote frontline users, those remote users can't view customer information contained in the database at headquarters -- at least not in an off-the-shelf version of the product. That capability requires a custom modification, and is not available in any kind of standardized, tested and documented form.

According to company engineers, a more standardized version of this feature could be in the making. It seems it should be: not providing frontline users with customer histories could, in some instances, be likened to military headquarters not providing soldiers on the front line with sufficient ammunition. For example: a consumer strides up to the counter of a retail outlet and, filled with righteous indignation, exclaims that they've purchased a damaged product that must be immediately replaced. While the main database at headquarters may indicate a suspiciously high number of product exchange requests placed to the call center by that same customer, current standard releases of frontline would not alert the remote store manager to that fact.

This is not to downplay the numerous benefits still available in a product whose first release, according to Swallow personnel, is admittedly focused more on feedback gathering than anything else.

One of Swallow Information Systems' customers, the U.K.-based WHSmith, will be adding the module to their existing continuum implementation. The company receives some 90+ percent of their customer feedback in over 500 retail stationery/book/ magazine/gift shops located throughout the U.K. alone, and aims to use frontline to hop up an already rather high-powered, call center-focused customer relations strategy. frontline could allow a company like WH Smith to capture a vast amount of information on customer product and service preferences, statements of positive and negative experience, and other feedback which is normally lost into the air at the close of numerous interactions between consumers and store personnel. One would imagine frontline should not be a difficult upsell to other continuum users with a strong retail presence such as office supply giant Staples. Other clients include Toyota, Mitsubishi Motors and McDonald's Restaurants Ltd.

While frontline could expand a company's perspective on its customers, both in general and on a one-to-one basis, another potential benefit would be the way it enhances customers' perceptions of a company. Call center agents armed with frontline information can show individual customers an awareness of interactions that happened face-to-face between them and retail personnel. This is a branding issue tied in to the customer's image of your company. While you should be able to deal with consumers homogeneously, regardless of how they contact you, they should in turn view all faces of your company -- whether presented to them through a Web site, by telephone or in person, as aspects of the same, personally attentive organization. For frontline to be most effective in this manner, though, it would really need to provide two-way access -- offering remote workers the same access to information contained at headquarters.

Swallow Information Systems could be sitting on top of a very valuable idea with this product module. To fully capitalize on their idea, though, it would seem extremely important to further "productize" not just frontline, but the whole suite -- isolating a fixed set of standardized, documented features and then offering customization on top of that.

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