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Customer Relationship Management
April 2001


Solving The Puzzle Of Enterprisewide CRM


[Go right to Digging Deep And Staying Focused With Enterprise CRM]

To build loyalty and value, a company must be able to respond to its customers quickly, effectively and completely. While this goal may seem self-evident, achieving it is anything but. Many of the customer contact systems on the market today claim to offer all the features a company needs to deliver the highest level of customer service possible, but some lack the most critical piece of the puzzle -- the ability to easily integrate with existing customer and business data systems to ensure that agents have access to all the information they need, when they need it.

To help agents quickly identify customers, understand their specific problems or questions, and anticipate their needs, companies require an integrated system. The system must allow all agents, regardless of where they are physically located, to access and exchange pertinent customer data and translate them into useful sales and support information. A truly integrated customer contact solution should extend to the entire enterprise, regardless of where the enterprise geographically exists, and should be able to launch and interface with a full range of customer and business data systems such as CRM, back-office applications and client-server or legacy systems. Using this customer and business information allows the contact system to more intelligently prioritize and route customer calls. As customers are directed to appropriate agents, the information flows with the call to minimize information repetition and customer frustration. The end result is a higher level of agent productivity and customer satisfaction.

The Importance Of Integration In The Enterprise
Today, an increasing number of companies are becoming aware of the importance of the customer relationship, particularly the customer who is a repeat buyer and a source of referral business. Accordingly, many companies are reorganizing themselves around their customers. In this new customer-centric business model, the contact center takes on critical importance, transforming from a tactical operation to a strategic function, the means by which enterprises can gather information about their customers and use it to establish stronger relationships with them.

Achieving this customer-centric vision requires integration on several levels. On one level, it requires enterprises to integrate how they serve their customers across multiple communication channels. The historical call center becomes a contact center, where customers "enter" the enterprise by any medium they choose -- phone, e-mail, Web or fax -- and expect the same level of service. The contact center must incorporate these various contact channels alongside the phone, and allocate appropriate resources to ensure a uniform, positive customer experience.

It is critical that all customer contact functions be integrated. Customer expectations today demand the enterprise move away from disparate, stand-alone systems to comprehensive, all-in-one contact solutions that incorporate a full range of features and functions into a single system. These fully integrated solutions bring together traditional productivity-enhancing technologies such as automatic call distribution (ACD), interactive voice response (IVR) and call recording, using computer-telephony integration (CTI) to streamline the contact center environment, simplify operations and cut costs. Through this simplified integration, all customer interactions can be administered, managed and reported on through a single system. By establishing a single set of rules to route and queue multichannel interactions, the system can deliver a 360-degree view of the customer, resulting in more productive agents and better customer service. In addition, by eliminating the need to purchase and deploy cost- and labor-intensive middleware to tie disparate systems together, the all-in-one system can save enterprises considerable upfront time and money and result in lower maintenance and service costs through the life cycle of the system.

A Seamless Link Is Critical
The most critical integration of the contact center is providing a seamless link between the front- and back-office systems throughout the enterprise. Linking a company's touch points to its corporate knowledge bases ensures that agents have access to the information they need to service the customer. The ability to pull information from legacy front- and back-office systems, including mainframe-based applications, allows companies to leverage the benefits of business and customer intelligence to deliver better customer experiences. This integration enables the contact system to achieve smarter routing and prioritization of customer interactions because it can use current business data such as account status, customer profile and last representative contact to process interactions. It also provides the enterprise with the ability to capture and leverage knowledge of every interaction it has with its customers across all enterprise functions, leading to improved decision-making abilities and enhanced customer relationship management.

Selecting An Integrated, "Integrateable" Customer Contact Solution
There are many theoretically integrated contact center solutions on the market that claim to have the ability to deliver superior customer service across multiple communications channels. Some of these solutions may only integrate certain functions within themselves and do not provide the ability to integrate with third-party databases and applications. These systems may require expensive integration services to develop tailored applications to implement call flows, build new interfaces to the corporate databases and write interfaces to third-party applications.

Following are some guidelines on how to choose a contact center solution that provides both full pre-integration of features and the ability to integrate easily with existing business systems.

All-in-one pre-integrated solution. Look for a single, all-in-one solution rather than separate products that require complicated integration with middleware. Bundled products may not perform as well and can be more challenging to deploy.

Multichannel support. Make sure the solution supports customer service across multiple communications channels, including the telephone, Web chat, Web collaboration, fax, voice mail and e-mail.

Third-party application integration. Find a system that is capable of using data from other third-party databases and applications. Some systems do this via an API that is included in the software. Make sure that the system controls the third-party applications, rather than vice versa, to enable the system to monitor all activities for reporting purposes. Also check to make sure the application control mechanism is via desktop automation standards (such as OLE), as this provides for the highest level of integration.

Telephony integration. Choose a solution that integrates with existing telephony systems (PBX- and Centrex-based). Sharing data with PBX systems through industry-standard protocols can eliminate the need for a telephony interface in each agent's computer and enable the use of standard analog lines for a voice path. This gives better access to management information through the resident hardware platform.

Ultimately, the key to more effective, efficient agents and more loyal customers is through voice and data integration. A contact center system that integrates ACD, IVR, CTI and Web, voice mail, fax and e-mail, and offers integration with databases and CRM applications, provides enterprises an opportunity to improve both their sales and productivity rates by enhancing all facets of their customer relationship processes.

Rusty Coleman is president and chief operating officer of Braxtel Communications, a developer of customer contact solutions.

[ Return To The April 2001 Table Of Contents ]

Digging Deep And Staying Focused With Enterprise CRM


You can speak from now to eternity about the business value of computer technology. As the old song goes, 'It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing!' In the consumer catalog world, as in every other channel of retailing, the swing is toward finding ways to stay focused on the customer.

It's a clear trend. Word from any variety of top industry watchers is that customer relationship management (CRM) software is the chief object of technology affection among businesses worldwide. It is being purchased and implemented at a phenomenal rate -- faster than any other analytical application, according to International Data Corporation (IDC). Indeed, a January CyberAtlas article by Michael Pastore quotes IDC as estimating that the CRM market will tally revenues near the $2 billion mark by 2004.

Why is customer relationship management such a hot prospect? While the hallmark of typical analytic software is its ability to dig deeper, sort faster and put forth volumes of reports, if it does not support the experience offered to the customer, it becomes random terabytes of data piled higher and deeper. Neither customers nor the CEO will see the benefits of such an operation.

In the wake of the e-commerce revolution, one lesson that is being learned is that the need for customer focus is the same as it has always been. However, advances in technology mean that retailers face an ever-greater challenge of trying to maintain that focus while the numbers churned out in their back rooms press companies to increase average order sizes, sell higher-margin goods and services and increase customer lifetime values.

It's now more important to emphasize CRM than ever before. Just a few years ago, retailers were marking down an average of 8 percent of their inventory to get the kinds of traffic, sales and revenues they required. More recently, that number has increased into the double digits and rebates are often not just a marketing strategy -- they're an expectation.

Another Channel Of Opportunity
In the final analysis, what the Internet has done is present merchants with yet another channel through which to address customer needs and desires. It's one more channel of opportunity, and one more way to measure a business. Companies must be able to measure what percentage of inventory they are marking down, in which departments, which stores and in which regions -- and they must be able to do this across the entire company. Regardless of which channel a customer chooses to initiate contact at any given moment, that customer desires a singular experience that reinforces the feeling that an enterprise understands him or her as an individual.

Organizations that have begun to deploy the latest generation of one-to-one, real-time, enterprisewide CRM, whether via the Internet or the contact center, are aware of the advantages.

The fact that large retailers are embracing multichannel opportunities and implementing CRM solutions supports the conclusion that the early adopter phase is nearly over for this type of software. With the shakeout of pure-play Internet retailers well under way, the chaff is being separated from the wheat and consumers are grabbing their bread from the branded, multichannel players. Numbers provided by Nielsen/NetRatings support that claim. Nielsen reported that on the day after Thanksgiving (a day that traditionally kicks off the holiday shopping season) in 2000, buyers on the Internet pushed sales of multichannel retailers up 49 percent compared with 26 percent for those who sell online only. This kind of mainstream action means greater mainstream demand for solutions that deliver a healthy return on investment.

What To Look For
So what should a multichannel retailer be looking at when trying to get the entire enterprise properly aligned with the customer? First, each specific business problem that needs to be solved should be clearly identified. Is the issue sluggish sales in the contact center? Are online shoppers defecting because of a disconnect between what they want and what you have? Are tempers flaring because in-store shoppers can't return purchases they made online?

Whatever the issue, the solution you choose should give you the insight you need on both the front and back ends. The solution should maintain a focus on the customer, but go deep into essential product and promotional data and transform those data into not just 'look what happened' reports, but offer 'best action to take' prescriptions that lead to improved service, greater revenues and stronger profitability.

Along with knowing what business problems need to be solved, the company that implements CRM must also decide specifically how the deeper insight that is being achieved into all of its activities is going to drive change throughout the organization. Every employee in every department across an enterprise should know what the goals and objectives are, and they should be ready to be held accountable through the measurement of progress and results.

The Right Attitude
Indeed, some might argue that the biggest threat to the successful implementation of CRM is not the software, but ensuring that the entire company has adopted positive customer relationship management as part of its business philosophy. That said, once the right attitude has been achieved throughout the company, the issue of integration across channels is still something to be reckoned with.

Multiple channels often mean multiple databases. Somehow, the zeroes and ones of base-A must be translated into zeroes and ones that base-B can understand. Most CRM vendors assure customers that their solutions do that. The trouble is, when customers look behind most of their curtains, they may find that the application lacks depth. That puts the 'buyer beware' onus back on the merchant, and the way to address this is to make sure the vendor demonstrates deep knowledge and understanding of the issues specific to the retail world.

Questions worth asking include:

  • Does the solution offer a complete picture, linking product performance with customer behavior and promotions?
  • Does it show which customers are buying which products, through which channels, at what price?
  • Can it show which products tend to drive the sale of additional products at the same time?
  • What's the expected return on investment?

Obviously, these are not the only questions that matter, but along with the criteria outlined earlier in this piece, they provide an effective guide to ensuring that whichever solution a retailer ultimately puts into place, it will address specific business issues, deliver solid performance and result in measurable improvement in profitable action.

Soren Kirchner, Ph.D., is the call center product manager for Net Perceptions, a provider of data mining and real-time personalization to call centers.

[ Return To The April 2001 Table Of Contents ]

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