Seeking a Fix to Customer Service Issues? Don’t Look in the Attic


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In cleaning out my attic the other day, I got to thinking about customer data integration in the era of the service-oriented architecture (SOA).

[Disclaimer: Cleaning the attic and the topic of customer data integration were considered only after I had been asked by my teenage daughters to take them to the mall.]

The reason I began thinking of customer data integration is not just because I am in the customer service industry, but because the attic is a great metaphor for the traditional approach to managing customer data.

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 site and easily accessible. But the key is this: Everything you’ve meticulously organized in the attic is outdated, and not very useful. The same is true to the traditional customer service approach.

Over the years, many companies have organized significant amounts of customer data in traditional data warehouses. Enterprising companies update these databases as often as once a day. The most advanced companies are using applications that enable contact center agents to see data in real time, but that’s only data that exists within the contact center or sometimes only within that specific software application. 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 an area of the company outside of the contact center, such as an offline store manager or even 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.

Data at your fingertips

To finish the attic analogy, an SOA enables a customer service company to rely on information in the “attic” less often. An SOA is composed of loosely coupled pieces of application functionality used and combined with other applications over a network. The architecture depends on composite applications built on web services. The web services enable the communication between each application. 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.

An SOA is not a replacement for a complete contact center system; rather, it is a different approach or way 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 email 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 work within the SOA and enable web services.

By enabling communication between contact center knowledge bases and other systems in the enterprise, organizations ensure that the transfer of critical customer information occurs at the data and technology level. This helps 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, in which systems are updated at end of day, weekly or during another frequency. With web services, the contact center knowledge bases can be updated immediately, 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.

Object-oriented approach

Taking this one step further, organizations need to take an object-oriented 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 pull from to get the latest data to provide the correct answer to the agent. Further, this data object should be capable of being leveraged anywhere within the enterprise. 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.

Consider 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.

However, now, just days later, you are trying to hook up your computer to the new modem and you can not get a connection, so you call customer service at the broadband division. They are just as puzzled as you, because the modem numbers they have on file for you 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 new modem information was never transferred to the customer service agent. This caused a less than pleasurable customer service incident for you because it took more time for the agent to fix your problem. Not only are you unhappy, but also the overall cost of customer service for the company just went up.

If your broadband provider had leveraged an SOA, the contact center agent would have had access to this information in the inventory tracking system—and would have answered your question more quickly. Ensuring you remain a satisfied and loyal customer and ensuring the company saves money.

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 companies 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.

Charlie Isaacs
Charles Isaacs, CTO of KANA Software, joined KANA Software in 2004, bringing 20 years of knowledge management and self-service experience to his position. As CTO, Isaacs is responsible for the company's product strategy and vision, leveraging his years of experience in building knowledge-powered customer service solutions.


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