Customer integration points

Over the past five years, many CIOs have put significant effort intodeploying customer relationship management (CRM) systems. These systemsprovide a single view of the customer for the sales organization and givereal IT support to activities that were previously handled inspreadsheets, address books, and e-mail.
Written by Phil Windley, Contributor

Over the past five years, many CIOs have put significant effort into deploying customer relationship management (CRM) systems. These systems provide a single view of the customer for the sales organization and give real IT support to activities that were previously handled in spreadsheets, address books, and e-mail. Getting these systems integrated into the business isn't easy--just mentioning CRM is enough to make many CIOs groan.

Given that history, the last thing most IT executives want to hear is that the job isn't finished. Even so, it's clear that there's still plenty of work left to do. Think of all the places that your organization and customers interact. Here's a few:

  • Customer service, including phone, chat, e-mail, & forums
  • Pre-sales portals
  • Sales support (traditional CRM)
  • Warranty registrations
  • Pro-active notifications such as recalls

Gartner has coined a term, "customer interaction hub," to describe the integrated system that supports these customer touchpoints in a coordinated way. I think "hub" is an unfortunate term because it brings to mind a thing that you install. In fact, no one can sell you a customer interaction hub. You can buy services and tools, but because every company has unique interactions with its customers, its going to need to integrate and coordinate those interactions in a custom way.

Last year, in a column I wrote on CIH systems, I talked about this complexity:

In the past, companies have outsourced customer support for one simple reason: cost. The goal is to provide a degree of customer support at the cheapest price possible. The emergence of CIH and the integration of pre-sales and post-sales customer portals, however, adds a new reason to outsource customer interaction: complexity. Few companies want to develop the competencies and hire the people required to create full-scale customer interaction portals that also include live help agents who seamlessly integrate into the support system.

Gartner doesn't think that the CIH marketplace will fully develop until 2007. Part of the reason for this is that CIH systems are incredibly sophisticated. They typically include corporate portal systems, document management systems, content management systems, dynamic knowledge-bases for intelligently presenting help to the user and the ability to integrate with a variety of customer relationship management (CRM) systems such as Siebel or Salesforce.com as well as call-center telephone systems. You can't simply buy these pieces and think they'll all work together; they have to be integrated.

Much of this integration will be built on top of an expanding set of Web services interfaces that vendors of the various components in the CIH are offering. Enterprise software is becoming more modular and that makes the integration job possible, albeit still not easy. What makes it so hard? The same thing that makes every enterprise project so hard: making CIH work requires transforming the business.

You're not going to build a customer interaction hub tomorrow, but you can start planning and doing things now that lead to better integration of your customer interaction systems. One thing almost every business can do to make CIH systems a reality is pay attention to their digital identity infrastructure. If you have more than one way to identity your customers, figure out how to link those systems. You can't have a common view of the customer data if you can't tell which records belong to the same customer.

Beyond that, pick something that the business-side is telling you needs to be done. For example, the marketing department may want better linkage between the CRM system, your pre-sales portal, and customer service systems. Tell them the possibilities, but make them justify the ROI. Make sure you build the identity management work into the project because no one will give you the money to do it on a stand-alone basis.

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