Customer Interaction Hubs

This article appeared as my column for Connect Magazine in June 2004.

Recently on Talk of the Nation, a radio program on NPR, the lead story was on Medicare's new prescription drug benefit card program. What caught my attention was the way that a government agency in a matter of months was able to put together a very sophisticated customer interaction system including a highly interactive and informative Web site as well as trained call center agents ready to answer questions via voice, chat or email.

If you haven't heard much about this program, there are over 70 different cards that a senior can choose from and choosing the best card depends on a number of factors including what drugs they take now, where they live, if they're willing to use mail order, and so on. Seniors can call or go online (see www.medicare.gov) and walk through a series of questions which, if all goes well, will result in a set of recommendations in a personalized pamphlet.

I was fascinated that a government agency could be this agile. I suspect that some of that is an "exception mentality;" the idea that we can get anything done once. The program is also being pushed hard so that it's available well before November elections. Even so, the sophistication of the customer interaction is unusual for a government agency. Of course, Medicare didn't do this in-house-they outsourced it.

More and more companies outsource their customer service. Of course, outsourced customer service is nothing new. Over the years, companies that take that business have gone by various names; contact center seems to be in vogue at present. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I'm on the Board of Directors for Sento, a contact center based in American Fork, UT.) What's unusual about recent developments in the outsourced customer care business, however, is a move toward integrating more and more of the customer touch-points into coordinated systems.

Gartner calls these systems "customer interaction hubs" or CIH and I think they're the wave of the future. Such systems not only integrate a customer service Web site with the contact agent system (including email, chat, and phone) but also customer sales tools..

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.

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.

The fact is, integration is where the value lies. Plenty of companies have a CRM system and a customer-service portal and some kind of Web site. What these systems don't have yet is a common view of the customer and the ability to respond to customer queries using the most appropriate channels. It's this shared view of the customer across channels and throughout various stages of the customer life-cycle that enables customer intimacy and excellent customer service.

All this would indicate that when choosing an outsourcing partner for your customer service, you shouldn't just ask about price, but also ask "can this same company help be build my pre and post sales customer portals, integrate with my CRM tools, and manage a full range of contact options with an eye toward helping my customers have a satisfying experience?" Few companies can pass the test in all those areas now, but that's where any contact center that wants to survive needs to head.

Phillip J. Windley, the former CIO of Utah, teaches Computer Science at Brigham Young University. Windley is writing a book on digital identity, writes a weblog on enterprise computing at http://www.windley.com, and publishes UtahPolitics.org. Contact him at phil@windley.com

Last Modified: Friday, 31-Dec-2004 16:23:14 MST