By Jay Waldron
What happens when a customer calls your main number in Sacramento, Calif., with
questions regarding an account? Can you answer all those questions? Or do you have to
transfer them to a division in Amarillo, Texas, to answer the second question? Does the
representative in Amarillo then have to transfer the customer to Sioux Falls, S.D., for
additional follow up? Does all this bouncing around and speaking with three or four
different representatives drive your customers nuts? Is it affecting your reputation?
Like a marriage, the relationship between an organization and its customers is a
delicate balance. Customers stray when their needs are not being met. Frustrated customers
will take their business elsewhere, especially in today’s business climate in which
customers are becoming more savvy and more demanding. Why do customers stray? What can
your organization do to prevent customers from flying into the arms of the competition?
Today, how companies treat customers can make or break the company. Nobody likes being
bounced from one customer representative to another just to answer a few seemingly simple
questions. Businesses have become increasingly distributed with branches and divisions in
differing locations, each with its own knowledge base. Wouldn’t it be simpler if everyone
had access to the same information?
Customer interaction software (CIS) solutions can offer companies that big picture by
putting information into the hands of the right people at the right time, allowing
everyone across the organization access to the same information. And when everyone sees
the same view and works together, not only does the company work more efficiently, but the
customer’s needs are better met.
It used to be that customer service and support were handled by only one
department–the service/support department. The support department was a company’s face to
the outside world. Customer service and support representatives originally handled only
written inquiries; then they began answering hotline calls and e-mail inquiries. Now
they’re answering inquiries logged by customers via the Internet.
But the customer service department was never the only part of a company that touched
its customers. What about sales? What about marketing and product management? These
divisions also touched customers daily, but in different ways. And chances are that sales
reps received some feedback on the support department while they were out in the field. At
the same time, the marketing department may have obtained some great leads for sales. The
support folks may have endured an earful about a problem that both sales and marketing
should be aware of. How did these departments share the information? Perhaps a quick note
was scribbled on a scrap of paper only to be lost on a desk because someone didn’t have
the time to pass on the information. Perhaps a phone message was left in a departmental
voice mail box because no one knew the correct salesperson to speak to. How many business
leads could have been lost over the years?
CIS applications can help resolve such problems and allow companies to acquire and
retain long-term customers. CIS solutions typically integrate sales, service/support and
marketing modules across an organization, allowing each department to share knowledge and
leverage customer relationships in new ways.
According to "Managing Customers with Next-Generation Software Applications: 1997
Edition," from industry analysts the Aberdeen- Group, "CIS improves sales and
marketing efforts and allows companies to provide superior service to customers. Companies
can convert more prospects into customers and then build long-term, profitable
relationships with these individuals and organizations. Existing customers return for
repeat business–buying more often and in greater quantity. This is in sharp contrast to
most other applications, which are designed to improve internal operating efficiencies,
and have the more modest hopes of cutting costs on administrative and production
activities. The ability of CIS to generate revenue increases its potential impact on
profitability by an order of magnitude."
As a rapidly emerging market sector, CIS solutions are expected to grow at phenomenal
rates over the next few years. Aberdeen estimates that this market will continue to grow
an average of 35 percent annually through 2000, and it expects the total CIS market to
grow from $2.12 billion in 1996 to $6.63 billion in 2000 (see Figure 1).
How CIS Works
CIS solutions allow an organization to fully automate the entire customer life cycle,
accelerating both the acquisition and retention of a customer base. CIS modules can be
broken down into categories much like the departments of an organization. For example, CIS
modules typically include marketing campaign management, sales force automation, customer
service and support and product quality management applications. Training and asset
management scheduling also are included in most CIS solutions.
To better understand the life-cycle management process (Figure 2), imagine the
The marketing department of an organization is planning for an upcoming trade show,
which includes many steps and processes. The marketing module of a CIS solution can track
the entire process, including keeping and logging addresses for direct mail advertising;
forecasting expenses for the show; keeping a budget for the booth and staff
accommodations; allocating resources for these expenses; and keeping a calendar of when
each task needs to be done to prepare for the show.
Because marketing campaigns tend to be lengthy processes, the marketing department may
need real-time status capabilities. The marketing campaign management module should allow
the user to make changes throughout the campaign as information becomes available and
plans change along the way.
Ever wonder what to do with all those business cards you’ve picked up once that trade
show is finished? When the marketing department has finished the show, those cards can be
turned into valuable customer leads for the sales staff (not to mention that marketing can
later measure the effectiveness of its campaign and lead generations). CIS solutions allow
a sales department to manage sales leads in a centralized way. Leads are automatically
routed to sales teams or individuals, and the process of contacting and maintaining leads
can be tracked. The centralized data also can help sales reps and department managers keep
track of product details, account data, contact data and sales opportunity action plans
for each sales rep. CIS solutions also typically include fulfillment, quote generation,
order processing and lost-sales analysis capabilities to help a company maintain a
complete and accurate sales history on each lead.
Once a sale is made, the usefulness of the CIS solution begins to multiply and the
benefits of the integrated modules really begin to be seen. Once service or support
queries are made by a customer, support staff can use the CIS solution to do diagnostics
and create a workflow process to solve and track the problem. A database of problem
solutions can be established to provide quick problem resolution for recurring problems.
In addition, the CIS solution should allow service department managers to look at each
service rep’s workload and assign projects based on current project distribution.
Because a customer history already has been established, a service representative can
alert sales to any issues a customer is currently experiencing. Armed with such knowledge,
sales reps can make more informed customer calls and be able to address those issues
during visits. In turn, sales representatives can report any complaints or problems to
service. Customer history is no longer disjointed–from that first lead to current account
status, information is available at the fingertips of each department that reaches and
Further completing the customer management life cycle is the product quality management
module of a CIS solution. Customer feedback and consistent product issues that need to be
addressed can be sent from service and sales to inform the product quality staff. From
there, development staff can track product problems or retrieve customer comments and
suggestions on what changes customers would like to see in the organization’s products.
Product enhancements then can be based on feedback not only from within the organization,
but from customers as well. No matter what the source, requests are analyzed and tracked
to the desired level of detail.
Development processes also can be tracked, including monitoring product target dates,
automatic status checks, audit trails and date slippage alerts. Once new product features
have been added, CIS solutions help close the loop to marketing. New messaging can be
created to advertise the features, completing the life-cycle circle that continues for the
duration of the relationship between a company and its customers.
The means by which companies communicate with customers also is important in providing
the best service possible. Whether communicating externally with customers or with remote
salespeople, basic communications still rely on the telephone and related technologies.
Most CIS solutions use computer telephony integration (CTI) to help facilitate customer
support. Support representatives need to have the ability to speak simultaneously with a
customer on the phone and access database files. Linking computing and telephone solutions
is crucial. CTI solutions also provide automatic call routing, ensuring that incoming
calls are sent to available representatives. Some systems may be set up to automatically
identify phone numbers from a database and bring up the appropriate service histories.
Such quick response times not only allow service personnel to respond faster to requests,
but the company appears more organized and professional when the customer does not have to
wait for computer files to be pulled from a database.
On the flip side, CTI solutions also can be used for outbound telemarketing calls. A
solution can be set up to dial numbers automatically by selecting prospects from a
database and initiating the call, saving representatives from misdials and long dialing
Because many sales and service staff are often on the road, CIS solutions provide
remote access capability, allowing database access from any location, at any time. CIS
solutions now are beginning to turn to Java-enabled technology and the Internet to provide
such access. Because Java is platform independent and can be accessed through an Internet
browser, it is an ideal technology for a distributed sales force. Java-enabled CIS
solutions let sales personnel directly access a database through any web browser. Updates
and changes to files are automatically completed, keeping information as up to date as
possible. No more weighty express mail packages mailed on a daily basis–the information
can be fed into the system directly at the home office. Java clients also can save
information technology (IT) administration staff from the headache of performing lengthy
software upgrades on the sales team’s laptops.
Indeed, CIS solutions can be extremely beneficial for acquiring and retaining
customers, as evidenced by the rapid growth of the CIS market over the past few years. In
implementing such a solution, organizations should realize that the entire focus of
addressing customer needs and wants can change. Becoming a customer-centric organization
can lead to better relationships, longer relationships and increased profitability. The
question is: Can your company afford not to?
James Waldron is president and chief operating officer for Applix Inc., Westboro,
Mass., a provider of software for managing customer interaction, real-time decision
support and office productivity across globally networked, extended enterprise