special report Keeping your customers satisfied is one of the primary reasons to invest in customer relationship management (CRM) technology. Such customer-facing applications are designed to make sure you don't miss an opportunity to provide exactly what your customers need. However, your back-end systems, seemingly invisible to the outside world, might be sending the wrong message to your customers.
If your internal systems aren't keeping pace with your business needs don't presume that only your staff are feeling the pain. Many businesses have multiple disparate back-ends that aren't integrated, and this can directly affect the way your customers perceive the service they are getting. -There are too many touch points for a customer," says Luke Glen, business analyst with BEA Systems. -You would think, logically, that there would be one set of content that gets delivered to the Web site, out to wireless iPAQs, mobile phones, the presentation is different, but the same common content.
-It's not the case at all. You typically see three completely different, non-integrated back-ends where content is loaded in three different places, targeted at three different mediums," says Glen. And that means confusion, at best, for the customer. When the customer calls, the person they speak to over the phone doesn't always see the same information that is on the Web site. Your staff and your customers might have a different view of the world.
While it might be appropriate for internal users to have a wider view of your business than your customers, without being able to see the same information it's hard for staff to even tell the customer what they're talking about. -What businesses don't have is a common service delivery platform," says Glen. -A service delivery platform is all about how to integrate all those different content sources at the back-end and deliver them through one or a number of channels at the front-end. It looks different, but you get the same content."
"You typically see three completely different, non-integrated back-ends where content is loaded in three different places, targeted at three different mediums."
-- Luke Glen, BEA Systems
-The challenge that BEA and a lot of other IT companies are working on is trying to see if we can transparently integrate all these systems at the back-end, and give a single view to the customer," says Glen. -Let's pick on BEA for a moment. If I were a sales rep, I would have information about a customer, perhaps they're a prospect, and we think we haven't sold to them yet. So they'll be in our CRM system because we're tracking new sales. But they'll also be in our dealer tracking system, and they'll also be in our ERP system, because maybe we've already sold stuff to them.
"If you have a problem with BEA products and you have to get support, you're also in our support system. So in BEA alone, there are probably six different systems that we use to capture customer information," says Glen. Although all of our systems are very sound and all work divinely and all have their own user interfaces, what we've done is supply an internal sales portal to the sales rep. So when you log on and you look up the customer the portal pulls the information from the six different systems in real time and pulls it all together to give you what we call a single customer view."
That can be very important from a sales point of view. When one of your sales people makes a call with the perfectly good intention of advising the customer about the latest revision and do I want an upgrade, and that customer happens to have an outstanding support issue waiting to be resolved, all they get is abuse and no sale. -Why would I buy more products from your company, your service is pretty cruddy," says Glen. -Or maybe I just bought that product two weeks ago. What are you ringing me again for? Or the sales rep says 'Do you want to buy this for $20?' and I say, well that's weird because I just got an e-mail yesterday from your company offering the same thing for $15."
Tony Bullen, CTO of CRM vendor StayinFront, believes that the whole heritage of IT development can hinder the best efforts. -Because IT has come from an accounting background, IT architecture tends to be kind of still stuck there," says Bullen. The thing that predominated in the 1980s through to the 90s, was point in time environments. People were writing a lot of code, but it was very much define your requirements at this point in time and we'll deliver a solution later.
-The reason that you tend to get all that friction between IT managers and between the CIO and the CMO or the VP of Sales, is because those architectures want people to have requirements that are reasonably static and reasonably consistent for the industry," says Bullen. -But in sales and marketing, even within the same industry, you've got to differentiate your business from your competitors. The sales team are the group of people most keen to do that. A competitor might decide to go to the market with a brand new product and that might change the way you want to price your offerings."
-If you have a shabby set of back-end systems, there's going to be a shabby front-end."
-- Fred Balboni, IBM
-You need to create an architecture for the front-end of your system," says Bullen. -It doesn't have to be our product, but it must allow that front-end to be rapidly reconfigured to cope with change. Otherwise you end up with the most profitable part of your business being outside your IT systems, and when that happens, you no longer have the data you need to do things like reporting, or drive other customer processes."
Fred Balboni, partner in charge of application innovation services at IBM, believes that it requires a cultural leap for most companies before they are prepared to share everything with their customers, which is what can happen when back-end systems are totally exposed through portals. -Technology allows an external user to look right into the centre of your system," says Balboni. -So the next question, the critical $64,000 question is what information are you willing to share with your customers in order to build intimacy and loyalty, and to build trust because at the end of the day, loyalty is all built on repeated performance.
-But that's a really confronting issue," says Balboni. -You've got technologists that understand how to wire the information directly to the end users but what you need to do is just stand above it. This is a strategic business challenge. It's strategic because the challenge you've got is that technology is now enabling end users, customers, consumers to access whatever you decide to make available. What information are you willing to share on either side?
-It's about the business processes that you do manually today, if that's a mess, then automating that is going to only be worse," says Balboni. -You're not going to have a crisp, reliable, consistent set of processes. Now the software applications that the systems look into, reflect those processes and I believe that we use applications to institutionalise processes.
"So if you use application institutionalised processes, you have a crisp, consistent, accurate set of application and application data, and that's the way the company executes. Allowing an external view of your internal systems is not a problem. If you have an inconsistent set of applications, whose data quality is dubious, chances are that your processes are very inconsistent in their execution.
-If you have a shabby set of back-end systems, there's going to be a shabby front-end. If you've got a shabby set of back-end systems, my recommendation's twofold. One, work on smartening up your processes, and two, get a good graphic designer and lots of flash animation on your Web site."
This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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