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Don't look in the attic for fresh answers

by Charlie Isaacs
May 16th, 2005

Traditional approaches to managing customer data are much like the average householder's approach to attic storage.

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By integrating contact center applications such as case tracking and service resolution management systems within an SOA, the entire enterprise becomes the organization's customer data warehouse.

Charlie Isaacs is CTO of KANA, a leading provider of Service Resolution Management (SRM) solutions. KANA’s suite of solutions for assisted, self, and proactive service enables companies to resolve customer requests quickly and accurately across multiple channels.

Glossary terms: SOA, data warehouse, object-oriented, web services, lookup tool

In an attic it's very easy to locate everything. It's all exactly where you left it. The old suitcases, skis, and living room furniture are exactly where you put them, in plain sight and easily accessible. But everything you've meticulously organized in the attic is outdated, and not very useful.

Similarly, many companies have organized significant amounts of customer data over the years in traditional data warehouses. Enterprising companies update these databases as often as once a day. The most advanced companies are using contact center applications that enable agents to see data in real-time. The problem with a customer data warehouse approach, or even the more inspired real-time application approach, is that the data often pre-dates the most recent touch point the customer has had with the company — especially when the customer has spoken to someone who works outside of the contact center, such as a store manager or a shipping manager. These incidences make the data in the contact center database as useful as the old living room couch in the attic. The old couch is easily located, and has a good history, but it doesn't reflect the present situation of your house and family.

An SOA enables a customer service company to bring together information from all around the organization, not just what's been stored away in the "attic". The architecture uses web services to connect pieces of functionality and applications over a network. By integrating contact center applications such as case tracking and service resolution management systems within an SOA, the entire enterprise becomes the organization's customer data warehouse. Any company will readily admit that important customer information exists in applications all over the organization. By leveraging web services in an SOA, a company can give the customer service agent the ability to call up the most recent nugget of customer data regardless of where it resides in the enterprise, in real-time.

Different approach
An SOA is not a replacement for a complete contact center system, rather it is a different approach to designing a network of applications and how they interoperate. Every contact center still needs customer tracking, case management and knowledge base systems, in addition to service resolution applications such as e-mail response, web-enabled self-service, agent-facing solutions, and voice enabled self-service. These applications are built with the customer service agent in mind, and enable faster and more efficient resolution of customer inquiries, saving time and money. However, it is important that each one of these applications be able to "talk to" and call information from other databases and applications across the enterprise. In short, companies must evaluate their customer support and service resolution systems to ensure the applications enable web services and work within the SOA.

By ensuring that the transfer of critical customer information occurs at the data and technology level, organizations help to eliminate the problems of human error caused by employees not updating all relevant databases. Beyond that, an SOA eliminates the need for ‘batch updating' of databases at end of day, weekly or some other frequency. Web services allow immediate updates of the contact center knowledge bases, incorporating data from any system across the organization. No longer is critical information stored in different silos and unreachable for your customer service system and agent.

Taking this one step further, organizations need to take an object-oriented (OO) approach to leveraging the SOA connection between contact centers and enterprise systems. The transactions facilitated by SOA should be easily defined within the contact center knowledge base and the disparate data sources should be accessed through a specific object definition. For example, an application in the contact center should know which enterprise system to go to for the latest data and provide the correct answer to the agent. If this answer is "objectized", it can be leveraged as a source for other customer-oriented interactions such as decision trees and clarifying questions within and outside of the contact center.

Improving service
Consider how an SOA can help resolve this situation: Just last week your telephone company — which is also your broadband and cable provider — was in your home fixing your phone service. While the employee was at your house you let him know that your cable modem had broken. He replaced it for you with one from the truck, free of charge. That was good customer service.

Just days later, however, you are trying to hook up your computer to the new modem and you cannot get a connection, so you call customer service at the broadband division. They are just as puzzled because the modem numbers they have on file do not match up to the ones you now have. When the repairman returned to the office he had logged the modem he replaced in his inventory, but the information in the inventory tracking system had not been transferred to the customer service application. With no SOA in place to retrieve the up-to-date information, it took more time for the agent to fix your problem, causing a less-than-pleasurable customer service incident for you. Not only are you unhappy, but the overall cost of customer service for the company just went up as well.

As improving customer service and reducing its overall costs remains a top priority for all organizations, it is important for companies to look outside the contact center to find data that strengthens the ability of the agents. Service resolution management vendors provide solutions that enable tracking and routing of customer information, including scripts for the agents that help them resolve the customer inquiry as quickly as possible. However, the answer — no matter how quickly it is located — is only as good as the data that supports it, underlying the need for web services-enabled contact center applications.

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