Customer Starts with Custom


Customer interaction hubs (CIHs) integrate all of an organizations customer touch points into a single system. As I've considered this idea, it was fairly obvious to me, for example, that most companies could benefit from a tighter integration between their pre-sales portal and their customer service portal:

As an example of kind of customer sales tool I'm thinking of, the other day, I was on the Comcast site trying to see if they now have service in my neighborhood (they've been digging up streets and lawns for months). I was answering various questions and getting information back from the site. I realized that there was precious little difference, either technically or conceptually, from a pure-play post-sales customer service portal and Comcast's pre-sales tool. Pre-sales or post-sales, the customer interaction ought to be coordinated and integrated to give the best experience.
From Phil Windley's Technometria | Customer Interaction Hubs
Referenced Mon Feb 28 2005 20:51:24 GMT-0700

Recently, however, a story in CIO magazine about Enterprise Value Award winners turned me on to a whole new level of understanding about what the term "customer interaction hub" might mean. The most important things to get straight: "customer starts with 'custom.'"

If you read the stories of the four winners, what you find are ingenious ways that these companies, Foley & Lardner, ABF Freight System, AT&T and ConocoPhillips, have found to let their customer use the company's back-end systems--the ones that manage the business processes--to create customer solutions.

As an aside, Hossein Eslambolchi, who's featured int he article, is the guy that AT&T sent into clean up Excite@Home's network and email problems back in the day--this is one tough, but smart, hombre. It doesn't surprise me to see him on the other side of a well-run network.

For example, the article talks about law firm Foley and Lardner's system for creating custom extranets for its clients.

[I]magine the delight of Textron when national law firm Foley & Lardner gave the company's real estate division a way to handle most of its own due diligence and document preparation for purchases and sales.

The Textron division buys and sells resort and golf properties throughout the United States, and real estate transaction laws and document requirements vary by state. Foley & Lardner built an extranet for Textron with state-specific checklists of buyer and seller transactions and documents, including contracts and nondisclosure agreements, which the firm keeps up-to-date for each state. Foley oversees Textron's transactions and offers advice as needed. But for many routine transactions, Textron can efficiently manage on its own.
From Nice Doing Business With You - - CIO Magazine Feb 15,2005
Referenced Mon Feb 28 2005 20:55:57 GMT-0700

Shipper ABF has a similar tale:

Listening to customers led ABF to allow customers to use the website to reroute their shipments en route, if necessary. ABF customer Karen Beseda, logistics manager of Teragren, which makes bamboo flooring and panels, calls this option "phenomenal." "With other companies, they need it in writing, so you have to send a fax," she says. "Sometimes they do it right and sometimes they don't. I've had shipments go totally bottoms up because of human error." Beseda says she can resolve shipment problems with ABF in five minutes on average, whereas handling problems with other shippers usually takes much longer.
From Nice Doing Business With You - - CIO Magazine Feb 15,2005
Referenced Mon Feb 28 2005 20:57:58 GMT-0700

There's a definite Web services flavor to much of this. The article explains:

At ConocoPhillips, the lubricants division is making life easier for customers by accepting orders directly out of customers' ERP systems by using FTP. Similarly, both AT&T and ABF are giving customers the option of system-to-system connections via XML. ABF is using XML and Web services to allow customers who need direct access to shipment data and applications to incorporate shipping functions into their own websites and back-end systems. And at AT&T, customers can link their systems directly into AT&T's via XML through a process the company calls eBonding. So when customers' systems detect a problem on a network, they send a trouble ticket instantaneously to the AT&T system, which automatically sends status information back into the customer's system in almost real-time. Customers can also use eBonding to embed AT&T's inventory management tools as well as ordering and status functionality into their own systems.
From Nice Doing Business With You - - CIO Magazine Feb 15,2005
Referenced Mon Feb 28 2005 21:01:50 GMT-0700

Similarly, I work closely with a local company, Aradyme that does data cleansing work. We've recently put in a system to allow each customer to have their own custom portal to see the status of their data and give feedback on individual items in real time. Putting the customer into the workflow has done wonders to keep them happy, but it also gives the company better information with which to do its work.

In each of these examples, customers are getting custom solutions and are able to reach inside the company and affect the back-end processes that make the business run. In some cases, the solutions are sophisticated Web services, but in others, they're just Web sites that are closely integrated with the business processes that customers care about.

The article lists four critical customer self-service success factors:

  1. Remove humans from routine business processes to reduce the risk of error.
  2. Link customers' systems directly into yours to increase efficiencies.
  3. Listen to what customers want and need.
  4. Gear the systems to customers' level of tech savvy.

These are good, but there are some pre-requisites to even those:

  1. Get your base services, like desktops and networks, in order. You can't pro-actively add value to customer interactions if you're constantly putting out fires at the help-desk.
  2. Understand your business processes. You can't add value to business process you don't understand.
  3. Align your IT systems with your business processes as closely as possible. By this, I don't mean in some abstract way. I mean it literally. If each business process touches a dozen IT systems, you've got no hope of flexibly meeting business demands since every request will involve futzing with the entire infrastructure.

Most importantly, get out of the one-size-fits-all mentality that plagues IT shops and techie thinking. Get the custom back into customer.

I've got a companion piece over at Between the Lines.