Choosing the Right CRM Tools

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Customer relationship management may be everybody's favorite buzzword, but it is a mountain of headaches for attentive call center managers trying to understand what it means and how it should be used.


But it's also reality. There are tools and concepts that are sweeping through the industry and laying waste to a lot of old assumptions about how the interaction between company and customer should be handled.


In light of that, it helps to know before you take the plunge what you should expect to find in evaluating CRM tools. It comes back to one basic idea: CRM is supposed to make it easier for the agent to deal with the customer. Nothing less should honorably be called CRM; nothing more is really required to do a satisfactory job.


CRM is the blanket term for software that coordinates three things:


o Back-end databases and applications that hold and use the data about customer histories, product information and company policies.


o Telephony and e-commerce infrastructures on the front end that provide input for getting at the right back-end data.


o Agent desktop applications that you could think of as the interface into the elements in the above two things.


The reason CRM is so interesting now (as opposed to when it was called computer telephony integration four or five years ago) is because of e-commerce. When the interactions were telephone calls, the glue in the middle was called middleware, and it was mainly for telecom professionals to worry about. The call center worked just fine from an operational point of view with whatever the technology people said was appropriate for your switch.


But when you start factoring in e-mail and Web interaction, with its permutations and lightning-fast changes in technology, you need some higher power coordinating not only the technology, but also the actual information running through your organization. CRM is supposed to be that higher power, making sense of the data and putting a single screen in front of agents. It's also supposed to make the information accessible outside the call center, but that's a tale for another day.


When you decide the time is right to evaluate CRM systems, the first thing you will notice is that there are too many of them. Many will be gone in a few years. But you can't wait for that shakeout to happen - you have to decide now. The next thing you'll notice is that a lot of products that call themselves CRM tools only loosely fit that definition. You will waste valuable time winnowing the field to exclude things like CRM reader boards and CRM monitoring systems and CRM dialers. These are tools that work in a CRM environment, but very few are CRM tools in their own right.


Your basic framework for discovery of the perfect agent-oriented CRM tool will be a system that connects with four things. Anything less than these four really should not count for most purposes. They are, in no particular order: the automatic call distributor (or other switch, like a PBX); the telephone network; the Internet; and the CTI middleware that's probably in place. Anything less is really more of a value-add to a CRM system or traditional call center setup than a true CRM platform.


You also will find yourself juxtaposing that framework against the traditional spectrum of size and expense. At every step, for example, you'll be thinking about whether it makes more sense to build your own customer system, buy a tool built just for call centers (perhaps from a vendor that provides one of the four elements just mentioned), convert to an enterprisewide system or choose something delivered through an application service provider or other outsourcer.


Those are tough choices motivated by a lot of factors, including price, company culture, your view of the future and your sense of how hard it will be for your existing infrastructure to keep up with the technology needs of these new and growing interactions. Enterprisewide is perhaps the riskiest and costliest way to go. But there's a strong argument to be made that it's the best for the long term, because it has the potential to create a companywide culture built around the idea of better, more productive customer interactions. It leaves no one out and creates no islands in which bad behavior and unaccountability can persist.


ASP-delivered services are a good hedge for those who think their company is not ready for an enterprisewide system, but who know that they need to invest in the highest-level features, perhaps for competitive reasons. There are almost no circumstances left in which it is better to roll your own application. (If there are, please tell us.)


It seems that creating an inhouse, custom tool gives you a chance to reinforce old, bad habits and robs you of a chance to take advantage of the technical expertise and innovative ferment going on outside. You may have good consultants and systems integrators to do the job, but by 2005 or 2006 you will be shopping again, and by then you will be too far behind the technological curve to continue to custom-build. You would just be postponing the inevitable.


These, so far, are issues of corporate culture and philosophy. But just as important are hearing from - and appealing to - the internal constituencies that your new CRM tools will impact.


Management, for example, will need the system to do certain things. Key among the concerns in this quarter will be reporting and ensuring that business rules are applied with consistency across the various types of interactions. Managers will want to be able to determine, somehow, that e-mails are costing "x" cents per interaction to handle, and calls are costing "y" cents and what is the satisfaction rate across both types? What is the relationship between cost and result?


Management also will be interested in the way CRM tools affect quality control through agent performance measurement, especially through hooks to monitoring, training, coaching and assessment tools, and through further hooks leading to data mining tools. (These areas are increasingly related technologically.)


From the agent's point of view, you will be looking for ease of use, with screens and menus that are easily customized, yet consistent from user to user or within a department. Almost every tool worth looking at will have a browser layer for accessing information. This could show up on the agent's desktop or on the view shown to managers, or both. You also will be interested in exploring the way the system handles scripting and, again, the way scripting is affected by multichannel interactions: the way it walks agents through phone calls that are really collaborative Web sessions, for example, or live-text-chat interactions.


Ease of use is incredibly important because of the need to reduce training costs, reduce turnover, and, in a high-turnover environment, make it easier to get entry-level people on the system in the shortest time possible - all while ensuring service that is consistent and good.


The third constituency that needs to be appeased (or catered to, depending on your point of view) is the information technology infrastructure. These folks are involved in call center planning like never before. In the old days, their influence stopped at the end of the telephone wire. They were involved in how the telecom flowed in the center and how the local-area network was wired, but they were not involved much in the call flow dynamics and not at all in the business decisions about how to handle customers. Now, all these things are wrapped together thanks to voice/data convergence and the effect of e-commerce on customer actions.


Since everything now is deeply involved in a company's core data and networking infrastructures, information technology is critically important to supporting the companywide effort to keep the data flowing and keep it intact and consistent. Everything from database management to agent training, analysis and reporting flows through its bailiwick. Any CRM system you choose will be primarily under its control. In fact, it is increasingly likely that the "you" we are writing to is an IT professional instead of an old-style call center pro.


Many factors go into the selection of a CRM system. Too many requests for proposals are driven by the fear of a future that might never arrive - insisting on features that will never be used, as hedges against uncertainty. Instead, pay attention to what you do and what you need, and what you can reasonably expect your customers to want from you. CRM is a truly transformative technology, but it's not smoke and mirrors, and it's being offered up as both a miracle cure and a business necessity. It's not any of that. It's a set of premises, not promises.


You need to do a deep analysis of what you want your customer contacts to be like, how much you want them to cost, what they will generate in revenue and how far you are willing to go to get to those goals.

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