Customer Starts With Custom

This article appeared as my column for Connect Magazine in May 2005.

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. In an earlier column on this topic, I wrote:

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. I was answering various questions and getting information back from the site when 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.

Recently, however, a story in CIO magazine about Enterprise Value Award winners (see "Nice Doing Business With You," CIO Magazine, Feb 15, 2005) 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."

What was different about the four companies featured in the article, Foley & Lardner, ABF Freight Systems, AT&T, and ConocoPhillips, is that they have found ways to let their customers use the company's back-end systems--the ones that manage the business processes--to create customer solutions.

For example, the article talks about law firm Foley and Lardner's system for creating custom extranets for its clients. As an example, they created one for Textron's resort and golf properties division that includes state-specific checklists of buyer and seller transactions and documents, including contracts and nondisclosure agreements. The firm keeps these documents up-to-date for each state. Textron uses the site to do much of its own due diligence and Foley oversees the transactions and offers advice as needed.

The article tells a similar take about shipper ABF. ABF allows their customers to reroute shipments enroute, if necessary. The online application feeds directly into ABF's back-end shipping systems. Rather than sending a fax, or calling someone, ABF customers can manage their shipments themselves.

There's a definite Web services flavor to much of this. The lubricant division at ConocoPhillips will accept orders directly from customer ERP systems. Both AT&T and ABF use XML to tie their systems to those of their customers. ABF customers can pull shipping data, in XML, out of ABF's systems in real-time, allowing them to incorporate shipping applications into their own Web sites or back-office systems. AT&T sends network status information to customers, again as XML, in near real-time. Again, customers can use this to integrate AT&T functionality into their own systems.

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: Remove humans from routine business processes to reduce the risk of error, link customers' systems directly into yours to increase efficiencies, listen to what customers want and need, and gear the systems to customers' level of tech savvy.

These are good, but I think there are pre-requisites to even those. First, 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.

Second, understand your business processes. You can't add value to business process you don't understand

Third, 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. Simply put: Get the custom back into customer.

Phil Windley teaches Computer Science at Brigham Young University. Windley writes a blog on enterprise computing at http://www.windley.com. Contact him at phil@windley.com

Last Modified: Tuesday, 08-Mar-2005 11:59:53 MST