Magazine Article | June 1, 2003

Put Customers On The Inside Track

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

If you're lucky, your customers are beating down your doors. But, are you prepared to let them step inside?

Integrated Solutions, June 2003
Tom von Gunden

When I was a kid, my mother had an amazingly efficient method of presenting a picture of orderliness to the outside world. When unexpected guests suddenly appeared in the driveway or called ahead to see if we were home, she (and we) flew into a single-minded frenzy of preparation. Everything that couldn't plausibly be explained as being "in its place" (or quickly be put there) was gathered up and stashed away in the nearest hiding space. That pile of dirty clothes in the hallway? Cram it into the closet. The stack of old magazines on the end table? Shove it under the sofa. By the time Aunt Ethel was sitting in the living room, the only clues to the recent disarray were beads of perspiration on our foreheads.

When customers come a-calling, can your organization respond as quickly? With or without last-second preparations, how orderly will the inside of your operations appear? And, how deeply into those operations are you willing to let customers look? Might they peer beneath the couch?

Increasingly, customers want that floor-level view. They want to see what's happening in your production facilities, your warehouses, your document repositories, your field service vehicles, and so on. That's because their customers have just rung the doorbell, demanding attention (in the form of faster, more timely service). So, you'll have little choice but to pull back the curtains on your operations. How much visibility you offer and how direct you make the lines of communication will depend, undoubtedly, on two capabilities you may or may not currently have. The first is the ability to open your business applications - particularly your supply chain applications - for integration with your customers' systems. The second is the ability to handle multiple customer contact channels. Of course, to be comfortable with beefing up either customer-facing front, you must be willing to tackle the potential complexity and costs.

Prepare For Multiple Contact Channels
As for opening your business and supply chain applications, you'll have to decide just how open your existing systems are. If you are currently handling order fulfillment, for example, with proprietary and/or legacy mainframe systems, it may be difficult (if not impossible) to open those systems to your customers. Even setting up traditional EDI (electronic data interchange)-based communications with your trading partners can require cumbersome and labor-intensive custom-coding processes to get both parties' apps seamlessly exchanging information. What you're likely to need, instead, are open systems apps that can accommodate so-called "lightweight" integration components of the kind used in Web services and other XML (extensible markup language)-based data transfer. A component-based architecture makes it much easier to merge functionality from your end with the functionality your customers bring to the exchange.

And, even if you have migrated - or plan to migrate - your application infrastructure to a Web-accessible environment, you'll have to decide how wide to open the doors. A low degree of visibility into your order fulfillment processes would offer a limited view - perhaps only to information about expected production and shipping dates. High visibility might reveal floor-level, logistical issues - for example, delays in shipping due to lost pallets in the warehouse or quality control issues surrounding certain defective piece parts. Only you can know if a "warts and all" view of your enterprise would be helpful or harmful to your customer relationships.

Finally, widening the doors may affect your approach to customer service. If you are currently running a phone-only call center, you may want to turn that center into a multichannel contact center. Such centers integrate voice calls with such channels as e-mail messaging, Web chat, and other Web-based collaboration. Moving to a contact center environment may mean not only investing in supporting technologies but also retraining your existing service representatives to handle the range of channels.