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Consona Search vs. Enterprise Search Appliances

I am frequently asked about our search technology in Consona Knowledge Management and how it is differentiated from other competing products or categories of products in the market. Lately, in particular I’ve been asked to distinguish between our search and the search found in enterprise search appliances.  I used to try and explain intricate nuances of search algorithms and highlight some of the most differentiating protected intellectual property that we hold.  But this actually has had relatively less success then using contextual examples to explain the difference.

My latest attempts are to explain that Internet search and enterprise search are designed to find an answer to the question rather than the answer to the question.  Relatively simple concept with a lot of technological differences to the implementation of search technology.  What I am trying to imply is that that the two categories of search have a completely different goal, so their composition is completely different. 
 
Consider the example of an online car shopping experience. I could go to a search engine and type “BMW Z4 2011 Black.” I’ll receive a response including everything on the web that refers to that make, model, color and year including a car show site, YouTube videos, car dealers all over the country, etc. Or, I can go straight to AutoTrader.com put in the same information, and it will present me with a few options to choose from.  The focused search at AutoTrader can give me specific results based on my intent and further asks for other specifics such as my location and options to refine my results.

I have also been referring the following excerpt from the KCS v5 Practices Guide.*  In my opinion this explanation does probably the best job I have seen to date explaining the differences between the two.  I hope you enjoy this and with this information can more easily understand some of the differences between (good) knowledge management search and enterprise or Internet search.

“Search” for Support: What’s Different

The nature of human languages—and especially English—makes search challenging in any domain. For example, if we say “stock,” are we asking about a financial instrument, part of a gun, or a soup base? And is “running in to the bank” a common errand, or a navigational error in a kayak? Humans unconsciously disambiguate competing meanings based on context, but context is hard to program into machines.

Internet search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo! leverage the structure of the web itself, and the behavior of users, to increase relevance. With over 100 million websites and hundreds of millions of users searching every day, Internet search has an almost inconceivably large dataset to mine. Unfortunately, KCS knowledge bases have neither the web’s structure nor its volume of use, so Internet search approaches don’t work well for them. We often hear “can’t search work just like Google?” –because support knowledge bases do not have the volume of activity our answer is “no.”

If search is hard in general, search for support is doubly so. Users know some symptoms of their problem, and they may know something about when and where the problem occurs, but they don’t really know the answer they’re looking for. This is the basis for the Consortium’s contention that search should look first in Problem and Environment sections, at least for articles using the KCS proposed structure. The search technology also needs to support people who know something about the resolution or cause of an issue and allow them the option to search the Resolution and Cause fields.

The good news is, support domains are constrained. People will ask about anything in Internet search, but in KCS knowledge bases, they’re typically asking about exceptions that occur with a defined set of products and services. This simplifies the “stock” problem, if technology knows how to take advantage of it.

Key Considerations for Search Technology

The sophistication of search technology required for a sustainable KCS implementation varies based on the size of our knowledge base, the complexity of the domain (i.e., how subtle can the nuances be between non-duplicate content), the technical astuteness and the persistence of our users. Generally speaking, very simple technology often suffices for a knowledge base of fewer than 1000 basic articles, while collections over 100,000 articles in a deeply technical subject area strain the limits of current technology.

Here are some considerations for selecting search technology:

  • Is it important to be able to search other resources at the same time as the knowledge base? In other words, should a single search return results from documentation, community forums, or defects as well?
  • Will a simple keyword search suffice, or do we need to support synonyms, concept- based search, or does the size and complexity of our domain require even more advanced approaches to finding results?
  • How much of a burden does the search technology impose on the content developer who is capturing, structuring, and improving content? Must they enter careful metadata or keyword fields, or will search handle the content automatically? Can knowledge be captured “at the speed of conversation?
  • What reports are available to drive B-loop content development, especially to fill customer self-service gaps?
  • What options does the KCS program team, or another team, have to tune and refine the search experience? (See below.) What reports are available to help them do this?

* KCS was developed by the Consortium for Service Innovation, http://www.serviceinnovation.org. Visit their website for the entire KCS v5 Practices Guide and other KCS Resources.

Social Media and the Customer Community
Well it's been a while, and so it goes that tactical work tends to sometimes drown out the participation in social media through social technology. Such is life in 2010. Speaking of social media, with this post I am going to focus on just this topic.

CRM vendors and analysts are having a frenzy with the topic of social media. And rightly so. The statistics are staggering how much information categorized as "social" is floating on the internet today. It's not only becoming a part of our every-day activities and lives, but it also has a direct influence on the popularity of products and services … and, therefore, companies. Where our industry gets confused is that they call everything they are focused on "social."  What is social and how should we think about it?  Here's my opinion:

Peter Drucker (http://bit.ly/9Tipk1), popular writer, management consultant and self-described "social ecologist" was quoted as saying, "In a few hundred years, when the history of our time is written from a long-term perspective, it is likely the most important event historians will see is not technology, but the unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time, people have choices."
 
In today’s social world, it matters less and less how effective your marketing campaigns are (with perhaps the exception of awareness and recognition campaigns), or how effective your sales people are. Right now, your customers are talking about your company, products and services, and they’re doing it without regard to your reputation, your market share, or your previous values. They don't care about your corporate mission statement or who your founders were (or are). They, for the first time, have the power to influence each other and are doing this to a great extent. Earlier this month I was shopping for a new television because my 8-year-old plasma screen bit the dust. I shopped here and there, but ultimately chose based on consumer experience shared on a retail store's web site. It wasn't price. It wasn't features. It was simply based on the reputation of the product purchased by other consumers. I can tell you that eight years ago, I was focused solely on getting the most features for the lowest price. A complete change in prioritization is under way, and not with just me. I hear this from my friends and, more shockingly, from my 93-year-old grandfather, who recently purchased new phones for his house in a very similar manner.

OK, so I have just described the use of social technology for marketing and sales purposes. A very important category, but also a bit different from leveraging social media. Social media like Twitter or Facebook have a slightly different purpose. These tools, and others, are really for companies (although originally intended for individuals) to gain what is called a “Groundswell” for their products or services. Groundswell is a term that was originally coined by Forrester in a book of the same name (http://amzn.to/aelO7d).The basic premise is that organizations should absolutely be participating in social media (in the right way) and leveraging this for their advantage. There are many ways to do this well and not well. I would suggest that each company begin its quest of leveraging social media by taking on a few college interns for their advice before they get too deep into the initiative.

The other area that I wanted to discuss was the concept of social- or community-based support. This is another topic that, more than any other, seems to have the most confusion in the marketplace. Social support is not about participating in LinkedIn, nor is it about tweeting about a product recall (although this is related). Social support is about empowering your customers to support each other and express their opinions on the value of your products and services. Guess what? This has actually been in existence for more than three decades, at least the initial incarnations found mostly in high tech sectors of commercial industry. The main components of community-based support are as follows:
  • Forums - Electronic bulletin boards where customers can ask questions and get responses from peers. Good forums typically are tied into the contact center or "assisted support operation" so that no customer is left unattended. The key here is that customers actually don't want to call your customer support operation. They would rather ask a fellow customer for help, and this is where they will start - if it is done right.
  • Ideation - The idea here is that customers can post up suggestions about your existing or perhaps future products and services. Other customers vote on these ideas for your company to implement. Better than customer samples, focus groups or surveys, this really will turn your operations into a responsive and lean customer satisfier - if it is done right.
  • Blogs - Guess what?  Active customers want to talk about your products and services to other customers. And they will typically glow about what works and politely criticize what is wrong. You gain loyalty and interest and you don't have to do anything but give them a platform to speak. Again, you need to be cautious how you approach, but this is a fabulous way to get the community going.
  • Media Galleries – OK, so perhaps just an adjunct to forums but if you have a product or service more complex than a pencil, users will want to not only view how-to videos, but they also want to post their own. Give them a place to do just that.
  • Groups and Clubs - Customers will want to congregate around each other. Let them do just that by forming groups and/or clubs. Nothing like sorting through every product you produce to participate in a community. It's annoying and a quick detractor from the purpose of community.
  • User Reputation and Activity Systems - You must, must, must build in some way for customers to rate not only your products and services but each other. This helps clarify the advice being given and will build up your community by placing incentives for participation. You don't have to pay anybody here, just recognize them, and allow them to rate each other.
  • Analytics - What's it all worth?  Without solid analytics, it will seem as if this is just another cost without much benefit. Measure it. There is absolutely benefit, and you can improve the community, but you must first know how to improve it. Good analytics will tell you.

Hear more from Consona on social support tools by reading this whitepaper: http://crm.consona.com/CRM/LearnMore/social-support

Wanna see a good support community?  Check out Dell (http://dell.to/9l9YTj)

How about a bad support community?  Check out Apple (http://bit.ly/PeUz)

So, let's separate social media participation, like having a Facebook page, from social technology, like product ratings and social- or community-based support. They are all different things, not completely disconnected, but definitely distinct.
 
Agree / disagree?  Let me know, I would love to hear.  

Operating Environment and Architecture

Hi and welcome back to the CRM Products and Technology blog. This time I am going to focus on technology operating environment and architecture. Woah, big topics form a vast array of options.

 

As you all may or may not be aware, Consona has acquired three primary CRM companies (and other supportive technologies) culminating in five product lines.  We have the Consona Customer Management (CM) product line from the Onyx acquisition. Onyx or CM was designed to be a main repository, a customer master if you will, that houses all relevant customer information, be it front office or back office in nature, for front office operational usage.  This is generally divided into three main front office functions composed of information for the sales force, information for customer service or support, and information for marketing. Of course, many organizations don't fit directly into these molds (meaning that many departments actually cross over these poorly defined lines) but nonetheless, it fits the general classification of front office operations. It is also not just about the data; it's about the processes that need to occur when interacting with anyone outside of the organization. It is designed to truly be the system of record for those front office operations. This is mainly a Microsoft-based technology in which we are migrating from a COM+ infrastructure to a .NET infrastructure over time.

 

The second product line is called Consona Knowledge Management and it was acquired from KNOVA. This is a knowledge management application designed primarily for customer service and support organizations to populate and work with, or to spider and index external content, with an emphasis to publish this information to self-service for customers to consume. This is chiefly a Java-based application that actually runs on the Microsoft operating system, but regardless, is a Java based application in nature.

 

The third, fourth and fifth product lines were acquired through Consona’s SupportSoft acquisition. The third product line is called Live Assistance and is designed to facilitate communications through channels with customers and extends this core competency by including the capability to automatically diagnose technical issues on machines and automatically fix them as appropriate.  So, you might call it a multi-channel technology with automated diagnostic and repair technology. This is a technology that is Microsoft in nature and, given the current state of the market, works primarily against Microsoft O/S based machines. However, we do have desires and plans to move this beyond a Microsoft client stack to pick up other OSs like Mac and Linux.

 

The fourth product line is called Dynamic Agent and resides locally on a client machine to perform automated diagnostic and repair to those environments. It does actually quite a bit more than diagnostic and repair, it can detect and target an end user environment and push marketing information based on that computing environment. For example, if a PC is running low on RAM, we can profile and target those users running low on RAM and offer them an upgrade. Again, this is completely a Microsoft-based technology today and, like Live Assistance, we have plans and aspirations to extend this to other operating environments including different OSs and things like Mobile devices—at least on the client side.

 

Our fifth product line is Java-based and is designed to manage CPE devices, which which is completely unique to digital service providers like Comcast, O2 or BT. The idea here is that we can actually monitor the last half mile of client connectivity, maintain end point devices like DSL modems, update their firmware, and perform other diagnostic and repair information against the device.

 

So, as you can clearly see, we have about 1/2 Microsoft-based technology and 1/2 Java-based technology. Therefore, from a vendor prospective, what should we do?  Should we rewrite to one programming language and gain efficiencies, or should we just say forget it and keep them as they are upon acquisition with incremental improvements or should we take a fusion type approach to particle elements in the operating environment? I think the best way to serve our customers is to keep the software as it is and rewrite common parts of the application that can be shared across the product lines. In any conversion project, functionality is lost and often times not for customer gain, just for vendor gain. This why I don't like this approach. But rewriting certain components is a bit of a challenge. We are planning to consolidate on common elements of each technology, such as user administration, authentication and authorization, or business intelligence, so that those areas that matter to customers are actually common across all of our products. Therefore when a client of ours wishes to leverage multiple product lines, they can have the best of both worlds. First they get to retain all of the valuable technology that is developed to serve its purpose, but not worry about integrating or administrating complementary systems from the same vendor.

 

So why does this matter?  Traditionally for most organizations there was a holy war around Java vs. Microsoft technologies. And it mattered a bunch when organizations hired and maintained not only administrative but development personnel in order to maintain the software for their inter production use. However, now that we have customers migrating to the Consona Cloud, meaning that we take over the operations of their technology, they shouldn't care. They should care about things like common administration and business intelligence. Which is why as a vendor over time, we are inclined to provide an infrastructure that is not only the lowest cost possible, but also that provides the same level of software and service to our customers in the cloud.

 

I guess in retrospect, we had some apprehension offering a technology stack that is uncommon across our products. And now we don't. In essence, it's our problem to figure out how to service our software and applications as we offer our Software as a Service via the Cloud. Finally, the holy war is over and we can get back to what matters more—how well the software fits and how well it will help an organization meet or exceed their business expectations.

 

Consumption, Consumption, Consumption

As you may know, Consona has been working to make our software and services available on demand via the Amazon AWS platform. And, so far so … GREAT!  We have had multiple customer pilots, and now have several customers live and in production. We have been feverishly working on ensuring that our customers have a very SaaS 1.0 (multi-tenant applications on the cloud, e.g., Concur or SFDC) experience, meaning the same high level of service, such as automagical upgrades, great accessibility, and streamlined support processes. The Consona Cloud is being designed to be a truly turn-key solution. In addition to equaling the traditional benefits of SaaS 1.0, we also hope to surpass them, building an offering that is more elastic, allows for code-level customizations, and offers portability to the solution—should they ever choose to move the software from our operations to another (including in-house). 

 

Ergo, SaaS 2.0 (a term I’ve introduced in previous blogs).

 

One thing that has occurred as a by-product of this work is the realization that we have an opportunity to move to a truly consumption-based cost approach—something that is actually part of the very definition of cloud computing, according to both Gartner and on Wikipedia. Because our underlying data infrastructure (using AWS) is billed to us on a consumption basis, why not pass this along to both new and existing customers? And to take it a step further, why not pile on the cost of our software using the same consumption-based model? 

 

The advantage here is our customers can actually have little to no upfront costs to begin leveraging our solutions in their daily operations. No long term contracts. Pay month to month, cancel anytime, no lock-ins. I know I sound like a waterbed mattress store that is having the old “going-out-of-business, this-is-craaaaaazy sale,” but it’s true. So, consumption-based approaches might be a pretty compelling offering. Especially underlined by the reality that while the economy is beginning to recover, IT spending is not. This seems to be particularly true with capital expenditures like servers, networking appliances, etc., which are typically required for customers who choose to implement our solutions on premise.

 

But are there hidden costs for consumption?  Is this like the No Income Verification home loans that got the US economy into trouble in the first place? Certainly it could be, especially if there was a hitch or balloon payment in the mixture. Although we don't have any of those.  And yes, theoretically, if one of our customers decided to take the consumption-based approach, there could be no cap on what they would consume and therefore be charged. But without penalty balloon payments or drastically changing daily operational processes, doesn't that seem a bit paranoid? What I mean is that most of our customers have a pretty predictable volume in interactions with their customers and other activities that can be well estimated over time. And based on business trajectories and projections, it seems to me that with an adequate amount of planning, consumption based pricing could offer significantly lower costs over time—despite the risk. It works for the electric bill, right?

 

On the other hand for those customers that want a bit more predictability in their expenditures, we can certainly put caps in place or customers could purchase perpetual licenses. In my opinion this will in most cases cost the customers more over the long term, but for various reasons, it is worth it to them.  

 

To each their own. 

 

We offer both.

SaaS 2.0 is Here

Thanks and welcome back to the CRM Products and Technology blog from Consona CRM. In my last post, I talked about my perceived disconnect in how the CRM market is viewed by different press, analysts and industry experts and called for a consolidation in their views and opinions. This post, I am going to discuss an announcement we made recently and a topic that I think is pretty substantial and important for all enterprise applications.  That subject is cloud computing.

 

If you didn't hear about it, Consona announced plans to offer our CRM products as Cloud solutions in early 2010.  We are very excited about this offering and are betting heavily that this solution stack will be highly valued for both new and existing customers.  In fact, we are calling this offering the next generation of SaaS or SaaS 2.0.  That's a pretty bold statement, but there are some very real and tangible reasons why this solution is truly an evolution to the first generation of SaaS CRM offerings.  

 

First let me give a brief description of the first generation SaaS products.  From an architectural prospective, top to bottom, everything is multi-tenant. This means that from organization to organization and from company to company, customers share all components. This includes the hardware, operating infrastructure and core operating systems; the database management systems; the data platforms; the application platforms; the application business logic; and the presentation layer of the application. And the vendors that supply this type of architecture typically provide a very deep configuration framework so that each customer can make business-specific operational configurations for that single application instance or tenant. Also these vendors provide an upgrade framework to allow for mostly seamless upgrades for their customers. And it should be mentioned that this type of offering is typically priced on a subscription basis, typically on a per-user, per-month type of arrangement.

 

There are some real tangible benefits to this architecture for some applications. And, if a high level of performance, reliability, security, portability, customization, or system-to-system integration isn't a concern (e.g., not mission critical), than you probably have a pretty good option. An expensive option, but a good option nonetheless. Now, I get beat up for this set of comments all of the time and let me explain. Yes, multi-tenant application SaaS 1.0 vendors allow some level of integration via web services to a fixed (and potentially slightly extensible) API. And this is great. But I don't think there is anyone who actually believes that web services are yet sufficient for high-load, system-to-system integrations. And, if the legacy system being integrated also has an inflexible API, well you might be stuck with exporting and importing bulk data. And by the way, importing and exporting large quantities of data isn't particularly great with these systems either. But like I said—I think some applications are well-suited for SaaS 1.0. I know that our expense reporting system is a SaaS 1.0 application, and it is fabulous.

 

However, there are some real limitations with this type of solution, especially for complex, enterprise-level applications. In particular, if you share all of the resources and applications with everyone else, there is a major issue with performance during peak demand hours. There are huge reliability issues in this infrastructure.  If one customer goes down, they all go down (or at least a significant number). You, as a customer, are locked in to this deployment and, ultimately, this vendor, and are forced to conform to their operating model, even if your business conditions (or the vendor’s) change. Configuration is not sufficient in many, many circumstances, no matter how sophisticated the tools are. Sometimes you just need to make core business logic modifications to meet your business needs, and this can only be accomplished with ripping into the code and modifying it, something that is simply not available in any multi-tenant SaaS 1.0 application. And let's not forget, the pricing model is expensive. I know vendors that do subscription-only pricing claim that you have lower up-front costs, which is true, but do not be fooled that this is the lowest cost option in the long term. It simply isn't true for enterprise applications. This is not unlike leasing your car. Yes, it is cheaper than purchasing your car over the first couple of years. But not over the long term.

 

Several years ago, the idea was beginning to formulate about platform as a service. I started to think about this, and I thought to myself, "Wow, now that might get interesting." A few years later, we now have the concept of cloud computing. The definition of cloud computing according to Forrester is "a pool of highly scalable, abstracted infrastructure, capable of hosting end-to-end customer applications, that is billed by consumption." Eureka! SaaS 2.0 is born. Let's define this a bit from my perspective. First, we now have multi-tenancy. It is, however, unlike SaaS 1.0 solutions, multi-tenancy in the right area. The operating systems, the infrastructure, the networking, and so on, is all multi-tenant. And it is charged on a consumption basis, meaning that you only pay for what you use. To me, this makes sense. Your application data isn't intermixed with other data sets. Your business logic can be modified at the lowest level. You can perform large-scale system-to-system integrations by private dedicated infrastructure. You can do large imports and exports to the systems. And, above and beyond all of this, it is likely more performant, reliable and secure than your own internal network. Another aspect of SaaS 2.0 is operational portability. In other words you not only have the ability to take it in-house, but you also have the ability to go to another cloud offering if you don’t like the pricing or SLAs or security or whatever. The point is that the choice is yours. Absolutely no vendor or infrastructure lock-in.  

 

With our announcement, I saw many tweets on our move, most of which were and are incredibly positive. I only saw one that implied the market should look down upon this type of deployment. One, supposed industry expert who is an "independent analyst focused on SME biz apps, primarily (but not exclusively) in support of Microsoft Dynamics channel partners" (by the way, I put this in here because I think it is hilariously biased) said something rather negative about our approach. He commented something to the effect that obviously, we were going to be hosting our single-tenant applications, as if this were a negative thing. 

 

So, to this tweeter, I say proudly:

 

The next generation of SaaS, or SaaS 2.0, will absolutely be multi-tenant at the operating system and core infrastructure layers. It will be single-tenant at the database and application layers. It will have the benefits of better scalability, reliability, security, integration and performance than multi-tenant SaaS 1.0 applications. It will be charged for on the basis of usage and be portable for customers to do with as they will. In almost every way, SaaS 2.0 is superior to SaaS 1.0, especially when the application matters and is actually mission critical.

 

SaaS 2.0 is here. Get ready for Consona Support Cloud.

 

Disagree? Comment here or email me at tim.hines@consona.com.
Category Talk

Thanks and welcome back to the CRM Products and Technology blog from Consona CRM. In my last post, I talked about the next evolution of the cycle, proactive support. This post, I am going to discuss something I think is very wrong in the CRM marketplace today. Specifically, I’ll be discussing the distinction between how analysts and press view our marketplace and why I think they are out of alignment.

 

This month CRM Magazine produced in its September, 2009 edition "The 2009 Market Leader Awards."  Obviously, this is an annual article and, in years past, I have found it both informative and well written. This year, however, I do not think they have actually adjusted to the market realities of CRM today.  In particular, I am referring to the categories chosen to recognize vendors.  They are as follows:

 

  • Enterprise Suite CRM
  • Midmarket Suite CRM
  • Small-Business Suite CRM
  • Sales Force Automation
  • Incentive Management
  • Marketing Solutions
  • Business Intelligence
  • Data Quality
  • Open-source CRM
  • Consultancies (firms dedicated to consulting on CRM deployments)

I find that there is a major oversight in not including Service and Support Solutions to the mixture and, for that matter, including Enterprise Suite CRM. According to Gartner Group, Customer Service and Support represents roughly 40% of the total market spend on CRM.  Further, these categories are very at odds with how Gartner categorizes vendors (which I happen to mostly agree with).  In the 2009 CRM vendor guide, Gartner's categories for vendors are as follows:

 

  • CRM Suites for Small and Midsized Businesses
  • Customer-Centric Web Strategy Vendors
  • Web Analytics
  • e-Service
  • Marketing Automation
  • SFA
  • Customer Service, the Contact Center and Field Service
  • CRM Analytics
  • Sales Analytics
  • Marketing Analytics
  • Service Analytics
  • Customer Experience Management
  • MDM of Customer Data Systems
  • CRM Business Process Outsourcers
  • CRM Services Providers

In this categorization, Gartner offers a few points that are both contrary and important to CRM Magazine:

  1. Enterprise CRM Suites are no longer in existence, or at enterprise level companies are not purchasing CRM related technology to serve multi-departmental purposes.
  2. There is little distinction between Small Business and Midsized Business CRM, at least at the functional level.
  3. Customer Service and Support software should be in a category all on its own.

From my perspective, I would take it even further. Based on Gartner's categorization, I offer the following opinions and questions:

  1. Given market consolidation I don't think there should be a distinction between the different Customer Service and Support technologies. I think that e-Service and Service Analytics should be included in the mixture.
  2. Is MDM a legitimate category for CRM vendors?  Looking at the vendors contained therein, they are mostly made up of middle-ware type technologies that serve to integrate customer data. Legitimate as a business problem, but shouldn't your vendors come with the whole solution, and not just a piece?
  3. Customer-Centric Web Strategy Vendors are all about web marketing. This is great, but shouldn't these be included in the Marketing Automation category?

I guess from my perspective, CRM is still all about three categories of main capabilities, Marketing Automation, Sales Automation, and Customer Service and Support Automation. For Small or Midsized businesses these can be accomplished with some pretty good suites available in the market place, and that suites make sense when a business markets, sells and supports a few products or services. For enterprises, it's far more complicated—not because of feature needs, but rather due to operational and process related needs. And for both Gartner and CRM Magazine, I think these leading voices in our industry should reconsider their categorization and awards to reflect the realities of the CRM market.

 

That's my take. What's yours?  Comment here or feel free to e-mail me at tim.hines@consona.com.

 

Proactive Support

Thanks and welcome back to the CRM Products and Technology blog from Consona CRM. My name is Tim Hines and I am the author, moderator, and caretaker of this blog.

In my last post, I talked about the rapidly emerging peer-based support paradigm being adopted by customers and leading companies. This week, it's time to move on to the next evolution of the cycle, proactive support.

As I write this blog, Consona just finished the acquisition of SupportSoft enterprise software group that provides, as part of their many technology solutions, proactive support. I have actually had this blog post finished for some time, but decided to wait for the publish until after the transaction was complete and Consona had a solution to offer for the business opportunity I am about to discuss.

Proactive support is quite simply the act of solving a customer's problem before it is known to them. Or, at least notifying customers about a problem and the potential remediation steps. It's about being proactive. It's about truly delivering a superior customer experience. It's about building loyalty and, dare I say, it's about building brand equity.

I know in my personal life, I appreciate when I get notifications of defects for problems that I may or may not have encountered with a product or service I spend money on. And, I happily accept and participate in every remediation step that comes my way. As part of that process, psychologically, I am just building my loyalty to that brand, because the company is demonstrating to me that it is trying to retain my business.

In most high technology (and telecommunications) companies, you have the opportunity to actually push fixes automatically to customers once they are discovered. For example, let's say that you manufactured or assembled hardware or software (or both), and you discover that there is an issue with a product through a single customer interaction. Proactive support technology would enable you to provide the fix (assuming it's truly not faulty hardware) automatically to the rest of the customers. And, in many cases, that fix can be pushed auto-magic-ally to all customers with little to no knowledge that there is an issue. Although I would suggest telling them that you fixed an issue proactively to build that loyalty.

In other industries, the same principles can apply. Upon recognition of an issue (that is broad-sweeping in nature), isn't it better to proactively alert the customers that there is a problem and give them the steps to resolve or, better yet, take care of it auto-magic-ally without their intervention?

The SupportSoft technologies have a lot more than proactive support, and I hope you contact us to find out more. But in the meantime, if you have an exception to what I have said or want to leave a comment, please feel free. Next time, I will be writing about ways that technology and the customer experience can actually help your brand and drive customer loyalty through not-so-subtle marketing techniques. I promise to be quite bullish on the topic.

Tackling Peer-Based Support

Thanks and welcome back to the CRM Products and Technology blog from Consona CRM. My name is Tim Hines and I am the author, moderator, and caretaker of this blog. In my last post, I talked about the true definition of self-service, delving into why many view self-service as just being channel management, as opposed to customers actually solving their own problems. This week it's time to move on to the truly un-assisted model—zeroing in on customers helping themselves through peer-based support.

 

Have you ever gotten stuck on something and peeked over the cubical wall to ask a neighbor to help you out?  I do all the time, although I sit in my home office where there aren't any cubicles. I use MSN or Skype to conduct virtual, peer-based collaboration to fix my problems. This act of instant messaging a colleague for help is actually a form of traditional, peer-based help that has been around since the early dawn of commerce.  But recently, there has been an explosion of peers helping themselves through rather public forums and platforms. Over the past few years as social networking technologies have emerged, individuals can now communicate with one another and, as a result, allow anybody else to learn from their experience. Common social networks like Linked In and MySpace actually are places designed to help individuals make connections with their friends and family members. Social networks like Linked In exist to promote associations between professional colleagues and, often times, business groups. And others, like Twitter, seek to solve even the simplest form of “catching up” among acquaintances by asking the question, “What are you doing?” What all of these social networks have in common is the ability to connect individuals in new and more personal ways than traditionally accomplished via phone, e-mail or post. What they also show is that individuals want to contribute content to subjects, follow people to whom they are loyal, and ask questions that are plaguing them. The community nature of social forums prompts responses to inquiries through a sense of community and contribution.

 

Companies are struggling to even understand social networks—let alone how to participate or lead interactions that affect their brands. But before a company can consider being involved in a social community, we should first classify social communities beyond what I have cited as popular examples. We can classify social networks into three basic buckets: 1) those that are supported by companies, 2) those that are not supported by companies but are dedicated to a company’s products or services, and 3) those that are on the large public social networks, including like Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, MySpace, and more. I argue that enterprises need to understand, participate and lead across all three types of social networks—and begin to incorporate this initiative into their daily operations.  

 

Why? Your customers or prospective customers are talking about your products and services and, ultimately, your brand with or without you. Each year companies spend millions on research, focus groups, surveys and other rather crafty marketing techniques to try and understand their customers.  In my opinion this is largely a waste of time and resources—especially when the information is readily available by listening to the social networks and buzz about your products or services. Social networks give an unparalleled power of insight and, for this reason, companies not only should embrace, but do everything they can to at least listen.  

 

But first, let's tackle the ‘understanding it’ part. There are many easy ways to begin to listen. Google has free social network watching programs. Twitter search is useful, as are Linked In, Facebook and most other social network searches. Go look for a Drupal community that has been established about your company. Chances are it likely has been started. Just spend some time monitoring, reading, and understanding how social networks actually function. Understand the social hierarchy that naturally establishes over time in that community. Notice how customers react when well-known issues abound and fester. Notice how customers either sing the praises or bash your products and direction. You can gain all of this insight and more by just observing and listening.

 

Next, begin to participate. Joining public social networks are mostly free (although it does seem that some are going to be charging for commercial purposes soon). Be clear about who you are and what you represent, begin to build a buzz, and if you can get some following. The next step is bringing the context of these social networks into your CRM system, so that you can begin to truly understand the status of a customer company or individual.

 

And finally, begin to lead. Establish your own set of online communities that are sponsored by you. Get your employees involved and make sure you answer questions that are not answered by peers in a timely fashion. Make sure that once an issue has been addressed, the knowledgebase / self-service search engine can actually provide this as an answer to other customers who are having similar problems. Ask your customers questions, and involve them in them in the research and development process by making the online community friendly to criticism and responsive to suggestion. Render a Drupal community unnecessary by being responsive and collaborative with your customers as you join and hopefully lead the conversation.

 

So, just a sneak peek on how to get started on tackling this new channel and communication paradigm. Next time, I will be talking about a technique that should be implemented for every company that absolutely can. It's called proactive support, and the underlying concept is that you fix the problem before the customer knows they have an issue. Please feel free to reply or to e-mail me directly with comments / questions.

What is Self-Service?

Welcome back to the CRM Products and Technology blog from Consona CRM. My name is Tim Hines and I am the author, moderator, and caretaker of this blog. In my last post I talked about the importance of customer master to an organization's ability to manage customer information effectively. The next natural step is to turn to topic of self-service, which is not only a hot topic for companies, but also an increasingly hot topic for their customers.

 

Generally speaking, I like the Consortium for Service Innovation's approach to defining and classifying customer service and support. The practices (which are well documented in the Knowledge Centered Support (KCStm) methodology) speak to two models: assisted and unassisted. The assisted model is when a customer specifically reaches out to work with a company to get some help. The unassisted model is when the customer helps himself or does not ask the company directly for help. What I like about this classification is that it clearly delineates the experience a customer has with a company, and it also emphasizes how important it is for a company to distinguish and manage both models.

 

Self-service began gaining popularity when companies finally figured out their customers wanted to leverage the internet to conduct business. But what is self-service? Well, if we were to align with the Consortium's model, it would be a part of unassisted support. Activities from a customer prospective include searching a knowledgebase for answers to questions, downloading fixes to problems. In other words, self-service is when a customer interacts directly with the internal processes of a company. So, we need to frame self-service as just that. It is technology that enables customers to serve themselves, such as maintain their own contact information; conduct certain processes to handle an inquiry (such as returning a purchased item or tracking an order for shipment); or search for an answer to a problem (such as how to fix a product issue).  

 

Ah, but many vendors will cloud the definition of self-service, and they commonly do make sure that you need their products and services. Many will call submitting a case online self-service. I would argue that this is actually assisted service, but rather via a different channel (i.e., not the 1-800 number). Some vendors call chatting online self-service. Again, I would argue that chatting falls into the assisted model and, therefore, by definition is not self-service.

 

These concepts tend to be confusing when they simply don’t need to be. I consistently hear companies talking about wanting to invest in self-service to increase their customer service margins. A good measurement and a good goal for any organization. But, I usually ask about what they have done in self-service and, commonly, they answer, “We put in an e-mail response management system” or “We made it easier for customers to submit tickets to our support organization on our web site.” Unfortunately, these companies haven't actually done anything but switch the channel. Don't get me wrong, implementing chat or web-ticket submission are good things, and yes, they are typically very good for a company’s margins based on the cost of interaction, but let's not confuse this with self-service. With true self-service, so much more could be done that would exponentially impact not only those incredibly important cost margins, but also improve the customer experience at the same time. 

 

At a recent Consortium meeting, I was able to review self-service case studies for three very large companies (I need to exclude their names for permission reasons). All three companies indicated that after they really embraced the unassisted model, the volume in the assisted model accounted for only 3 percent of total interactions with customers. Yes, their assisted model volumes went down, but only slightly. And, we’re talking about cost reductions on only 3 percent of their total service and support volumes! I was floored. So, what I concluded was that by doing self-service well, not only will you improve your margins, but you will also be servicing exponentially more customers—which can only lead to better levels of customer loyalty and, dare I say, growth. If you would like to read some more case studies, go to the Consortium's web site and check them out under the KCS information. They are incredible. We will get back to how to do self-service right in a later post but, in this one, hopefully I have conveyed my thoughts on what self-service actually is and gave a little peek into why it is so important.

 

In my next blog post, I am going to talk a little bit more about the unassisted model and, specifically what I referred to above as part of the unassisted model: customers helping themselves. I will leave you this time with one parting thought: the invention of social mediums like Linked In, Facebook, Twitter, and many, many more have changed the fundamental underlying dynamic between customer and company.  Social technologies are here to stay. If you don't think it will affect your company, you are avoiding reality, and if you don't do something about it by 2012 your competition will begin leaving you in the dust.

 

Thanks for reading and I look forward to the e-mails and comments that I receive. Keep them coming.

The Customer Master Matters

Thanks and welcome back to the CRM Products and Technology blog from Consona CRM. My name is Tim Hines and I am the author, moderator, and caretaker of this blog. In my last post, I wrote about what different CRM technologies are available in the marketplace and expressed my frustration that the CRM suite vendors haven't been interesting in providing a whole solution, thereby causing companies and users of CRM technologies a lot of pain. In this post, I am going to take it a little bit further and discuss a commonly debated topic: the customer master.

 

If you are not familiar with the term, the customer master is a big deal in deploying CRM. Basically, the customer master is which system in an organization holds the master record for a customer. For some companies this is the billing system, with others it's the CRM system and, unfortunately for many organizations, it's neither of these. Rather, it is spread out across the organization. So, in essence, there is no customer master. 

 

One of the goals of any CRM initiative and deployment should be to unify the customer record for both application (be it suite or specialty solution) and operational reuse. In today's very disparate SOA-oriented, cloud computing world, with legacy dinosaur systems, PCs, SharePoints, share drives (file systems), document management systems, and external systems environments, this is very difficult to accomplish. 

 

I would argue that there should be one master record that is tightly integrated in most cases across two systems, and that those systems are CRM and Financials. One of these systems is the core to the front office operations and one is the core for the back office. By providing a tight integration and interjecting some common-sense business processes for updating this data, organizations will be more able to then propagate a single customer record across the organization. If you have a mixture of specialty solutions that augment the core infrastructure, they need to be able to leverage that customer master, so that there is, in essence, one record.

 

Why does this matter? Because your customers think it matters. Last night I had the need to contact the manufacturer of a consumer device that I purchased because they sent me the wrong one. This is an RMA (return materials authorization) process that should be completely automated through self-service … but I digress. When I finally found the 1-800 number (buried deep in the web site) and contacted the company, I reached the typical first-level agent who couldn't help me do anything. He then transferred me to fulfillment where I connected with whom I gather was a warehouse supervisor who had none of my customer data. I had to repeat my issue to him, so that he could fill out the appropriate forms and get my RMA and replacement order processed. Now, both of the people I talked to were pleasant enough and, ultimately, they helped me solve my problem (my opinion of the purpose of customer service - this is another posting that I will address soon enough). But shouldn't both arms of the organization know about me and have this information so that I didn't have to waste an erroneous amount of time repeating myself? Now, it's not that big of a deal, but I do buy a lot of consumer devices (yes, I am a gadget guy), and this will probably play a part in my opinion to purchase from that company again.

 

Had their internal systems been deployed properly, they could extend a fully automated set of services and processes through the web. This is ultimately what I would have liked to have done, given that I am a Generation X-er. But, I bet if I were to talk to this company’s head of IT, he would say this is impossible based on the lack of solid internal foundation. 

 

Mistakes are going to happen in every organization. No person or system is perfect. I guess the bottom line is: Solve the customer master problem first, and then automate as much customer self-service as possible, so that the customer will better tolerate fewer mistakes.

 

Next time, I am going to dive into self-service, explore why this is completely undervalued, classify the different types of customer service, and demystify many promises made by what typical CRM vendors call self-service.

 

That's my take. What's yours? Email me at tim.hines@consona.com.

 

CRM Software Availability

Thanks and welcome back to the CRM Products and Technology blog from Consona CRM.   In this post, we will be discussing CRM software in general and how it is available in the marketplace today.  Also, I will give some opinions of the failings of CRM software vendors that have created a very difficult situation for most organizations.

When CRM software was created, the original idea was to implement a solution that standardized different operational groups around a single customer record.  From there, capability was built by vendors for departments to manage and operate their business in "front office operations" - usually sales, marketing and service.  This is what is commonly termed Enterprise CRM today.  However, in my opinion, vendors in general didn't listen to their customers or at best have the funds to expand the operational elements of their CRM applications quickly enough for most companies to adopt.  This was compounded by a new paradigm and explosion in technology in the early 2000s that revolved around customers wanting to use the Internet to conduct business.  What emerged is what we call at Consona, “Specialty Solutions.”

Specialty Solutions are applications that enable a particular element of front office operations by providing capabilities either not found or more advanced than in an Enterprise CRM solution.  And, boy there are a lot of them.  You can classify Specialty Solutions around the capability they fulfill and these will generally line up with Sales, Marketing, and Service and Support.

For Sales, the most common in the marketplace along with their purpose are the following:

  • Sales Incentive Compensation Management - A system that measures and manages sales persons and teams’ performance, and compensation.  Typically used in a situation where there are thousands of sales people and is very complex.
  • Territory Management - A system that automates the planning and assignment processes for allocating sales resources.  Typically used in a situation where there are thousands of sales people and is very complex.
  • Configure Price and Quote (CPQ) Solutions - These applications enable optimal planning, execution and analysis of pricing strategies, and ultimately generate quotes for customers.
  • Sales Content Management and Distribution - These vendors manage the content and collateral that Sales people use.  This capability is also found in Marketing solutions.
  • Sales Collaboration Platforms - These vendors manage the collaboration of opportunities in a team selling environment.

In Marketing Automation we find these and more Specialty Solutions:

  • Campaign Management (Relationship Marketing) Providers - Systems that execute campaigns.
  • Customer Profitability Analysis - Systems that analyze and predict customer profitability and potential profitability.
  • Customer Data Mining - Systems that enable advanced data mining.
  • Online Marketing - Systems that provide online marketing placement with Search Engines, Banner Ads, and other forms of web marketing.
  • E-Mail Marketing - Systems that execute email marketing blasts (or campaigns).
  • Event-Triggered Marketing Providers - Systems that can react to events that happen (say in the CRM system) and trigger a marketing activity.
  • Lead Management - Systems that manage the process of moving an inquiry through a lead to an opportunity.
  • Marketing Performance Management - Systems that measure the performance of marketing operations.
  • Marketing Resource Management - Systems that manage the production processes and optimize internal and external marketing resources.
  • Enterprise Marketing Management - More than the sum of its parts, these are systems that do most of the previous capabilities found in Marketing Specialty Solutions.
  • Web Analytics - Specialty analytics designed to interpret user's behavior on a website.

And finally, with Customer Service and Support the following are common Specialty Solutions:

  • Field Service Management - Software that enables the ability to dispatch and support field service agents.
  • Web Self-Service - Software that enables customers to service their own needs through web interfaces.
  • Email Response Management Systems - Software that enables organizations to handle inbound customer email inquires typically in both in an automated and agent assisted fashion.
  • Chat and Collaboration - Software that enables customers to chat on a website with a customer support agent in a 1 on 1 dialog.  Typically also includes screen sharing, page pushing, and other web collaboration features.
  • Feedback Management Vendors - Software that enables the capturing and action of customer feedback.
  • Contact Center Workforce Optimization Systems - Software that enables organizations to manage interaction quality (call recording), optimize call center workforce management, e-learning for agents, performance management and interaction analysis technologies.

For most companies I talk to, this is really confusing and frustrating.  Companies have spent in many cases tens of millions of dollars on an Enterprise CRM Suite.  The Suite has some of these capabilities, but in many circumstances, it is not enough and frequently it is up to you, the customer to cobble together a cohesive solution.   This situation is unfortunate.  Forget licensing implementation, or change management costs, just think about the maintenance of a normal production environment. 

Let's say that you were the head of a good sized customer service and support operation.  You probably have a core CRM system that tracks and manages your cases.  It may provide some level of multi-channel communication and generally is the core system that tracks and manages your incidents.  But your competition is clearly doing support better than you are.  You would need to purchase an ERMS, a Web Self-Service, a Chat and Collaboration, and potentially a Feedback Management solution all from different vendors.  There are some vendors that combine a couple of these capabilities, but to really get ahead of the curve, you feel like you need to get best of breed.  Think about the integration, the maintenance, the upgrades, the multiple vendors, and all that would be required.  In my mind, this is a major drain on a department that already struggles as a cost center for many organizations (although it shouldn't be - more on that in an upcoming whitepaper) to have to add this level of customer service capability which is just going to cost way too much.

Don't get me wrong.  Sometimes Specialty Solutions are great for situations where there is a very specific operational need of complexity. Sometimes Specialty Solutions are valuable when the CRM Vendor that you invested in simply doesn't have the capability that is required and you have already invested millions.  In this case, it's difficult to do anything but add incremental capabilities of different software solutions.  I get that.  However, I do think it should be different.  It makes sense to me that your CRM Vendor should be looking to, over time, add most of the capabilities to their core solutions to enable you to grow and mature your operations for a competitive advantage.  The vendor should integrate these advanced capabilities and maintain the integrated solutions as a cohesive singular solution for you, the customer.

That's my take.  What's yours?  Email me at tim.hines@consona.com.

What is CRM?

Welcome back to the CRM Products and Technology blog. My name is Tim Hines and I am the author, moderator, and caretaker of this blog. In this post, we will be discussing a question that has plagued an entire industry for almost as long as the term that describes it was first coined in the early 1990s.
 
What is CRM? 
 
Well, it's not a four letter word, contrary to what many believe. It's something that companies have spent millions of dollars and later compared it to burning the cash.  It's something that hundreds, if not thousands, of vendors claim to provide - if you would just purchase their magical product! It's something that consulting companies sell thousands of hours per of year helping companies (try) to implement. It's something that most analysts believe more than $16 billion a year is spent on. 
 
It's one of those words that has multiple meanings and is used in different contexts, depending on the situation, which is why it is so difficult to define. But for something that is so large, so vast, and so expensive, it's hard to believe that there isn't any singular agreement on what the definition of CRM actually is - at least by those who claim to be seeking, using, consulting, selling or implementing it.
 
I have been in CRM in some sort or fashion for my entire career (as a seeker, user, and consultant, as well as selling, developing and implementing it), and would like to offer the following as a working definition from which we can explore the topic over the next few weeks. It comes right from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Customer_relationship_management).
 
"Customer relationship management (CRM) is a term applied to processes implemented by a company to handle its contact with its customers. CRM software is used to support these processes, storing information on current and prospective customers."
 
I think this is the cleanest and easiest way to explain what we commonly call CRM.
 
The history and background behind this definition comes from a movement spurred by the invention of technology in the early 1990s called CRM. Before CRM, there was case management, contact management and sales forecasting applications. CRM aspires to bring these discrete sets of information and processes together so that a company can benefit from being able to holistically understand its customers. This benefit is commonly called the "360-degree view." The 360-degree view aims to help companies coordinate internal processes and share information across departmental or divisional lines, as well as market to both prospects and customers based on the centralized, collected history.
 
The reality of this effort was that it was difficult to do with most of the technological infrastructure available for data and application integration at the time. Integration with legacy systems and data issues with customer record master rendered this a very costly and custom effort for most organizations. Also, many organizations were not really ready or willing to coordinate these disparate operations, departments and divisions – let alone share information. 

Fast forward to today with advancements in integration practices and technologies, coupled with the adoption of CRM software in general, and the 360-degree view is actually much more achievable.
 
As traditional CRM vendors focused on solving the 360-degree view problem, what emerged in the late 1990s are what we call specialty solutions. Specialty solutions can be characterized as solutions that augment a core CRM system by adding additional functionality and capability necessary for front-end operations. Specialty solutions come in all three flavors, including marketing, sales and customer service and support. In the sales area, CQP (configure, price, and quote) applications have emerged. In customer service and support, CIM (customer interaction management) applications have been developed to address the consolidation and coordination of customer interactions through any channel, such as e-mail, chat, VoIP, fax, etc. These specialty solutions are now necessary for most companies, particularly as the acceptance of conducting business through the internet has become more and more mainstream.
 
Today, the companies that chose to go on the oftentimes bumpy CRM ride are looking to see a bigger return on their investments. In response, the CRM industry has coined several new buzz phrases that are all the rage. These new phrases are Customer Experience Management and Social CRM. We will talk about these items in coming weeks, but for now, let's isolate them by defining them as a new set of internet related technologies and practices designed to enable a company to open up a more comprehensive dialog with its customers and control and leverage the social community that has emerged around a company and its products/services. To compare and contrast, originally CRM investment was a very internal facing endeavor that mostly sought to unify customer data and automate internal processes, where Social CRM and Customer Experience Management are turning the attention to external prospects and customers through emerging internet related computing paradigms.
 
Next week we will dive into the idea of CRM software and specialty solutions and discuss how they are generally available today in the marketplace.

Welcome to the Consona CRM Products and Technology Blog

Hello, and welcome to the first Consona CRM Products and Technology blog post, where I will be your host. To get started, I thought I would first tell you a bit about myself. Then I’ll discuss the current plan of topics which I intend to discuss over the next year or so. Finally, I will preview my first topic, which is “What is CRM?”

First, let me introduce myself. My name is (obviously) Tim Hines, and I work for Consona Corporation as the head of product management. I live in Frisco, Texas, with my wonderful wife, my two daughters (2 and 6 years old), two dogs and two cats. Having a young family, I spend most of my free time running to birthday parties or going to some newly-released cartoon or Disney musical movie, where I spend most of my time saying "Shhhh…" or running back and forth from the concession stand to the restroom and back to my seat. When I get just a few minutes of spare time, I like to golf, ride my bike, and be active in my church.

Career wise, my first real job was answering the phone at AOL, where I troubleshooted Windows 3.1 modem connectivity to AOL, so they could charge by the hour (which is how they operated at that time). By the way, I met my wife there at AOL, who was on the other side of the contact center answering complaints about the hourly billing rates that I helped customers ultimately rack up. After AOL, I spent time at Andersen Consulting (before they were Accenture) helping internal employees connect to Lotus Notes and utilize internal resources. At Accenture, I eventually moved into a part of IT that did software technology and vendor evaluation and helped them choose things like ticketing systems, workforce management and other technologies. After experiencing the evaluation side of things, I decided to go work for a software vendor, and have been at companies ranging from marketing applications to e-Service solutions ever since (five of them actually). Most recently I have been at Onyx, and have just celebrated my seven-year anniversary with the company. When I first came to Onyx, I was actually presented with an opportunity to go work for either Onyx or a rival (of that time). It was a difficult decision, but after one look at Onyx’s underlying technology (namely the dispatch object model and customer data model), I knew which technology was ultimately superior - and therefore made the pivotal choice of coming to Onyx. After several years as a sales engineer, I now lead the product management and strategy for all of Consona's CRM products which primarily (and currently) includes the two main code bases of Onyx and KNOVA.

Now that you know a bit about me, I hope you gathered that I have been in CRM and leveraging CRM-related technologies most of my professional career. I have literally seen hundreds of implementations and practices of CRM and, hopefully over the years, have gathered a unique, grassroots view on CRM products and technology overall. I have seen technology that works, and technology that doesn't work. I have seen technology that is great in some environments and horrible in others. I have represented products that get tossed out because the users can't stand the UI, and I have replaced products because the users can't stand the UI. Ultimately, this blog is to introduce my views and opinions on different topics related to CRM, and hopefully spur debate amongst the readers … which selfishly we can then turn into useful technology for our customers. That is the mark of a good blog isn't it? One that serves the blogger just as much as his readers? The topics over the next year that I want to explore are vast. They cover many aspects of CRM and CRM technology in general, and it is my goal (even though this blog is a corporate blog), not to slant it too much toward our products. I do not intend for this blog to become a sales pitch. I am not a very good sales guy, and as the head of product management it's my job to both love and hate elements of our offerings in order to make them better, so this goal is actually very easy and natural for me. But back to the list of topics. I have identified the below topics that I intend to be discussing and debating over the next year or so. I use the word “intend” on purpose, in that I hope some of you, via your comments and posts, will pull the discussion in one direction or another.

But so far, the topics are as follows:

  • What is CRM?
  • Customer master: Does it matter?
  • Technology integration 2008 and beyond
  • Data Quality: Who has the time and is it worth it?
  • SaaS, On-Premise, Hosted Services, Managed Services, Hybrid Approaches - What does it all mean?
  • Configuration vs. Customization
  • Why do I pay maintenance?
  • Emerging technologies in CRM
  • Customer Management vs. Customer Experience - Is there a difference?
  • What is knowledge and what is knowledge management?
  • CRM marketing solutions
  • CTI, VoIP, ACD, XYZ and PDQ

So, next week we will start with our initial topic: “What is CRM?” As a preview to that topic, there are literally thousands of vendors who all claim to be CRM technology providers. But, I am interested in talking about this from your prospective. I plan to explore it as a practice, as a technology, and as a term in general. Hopefully you will find it beneficial and thought-provoking, especially in this economic environment where most companies are looking to cut costs, especially in customer service and support and IT.

Thanks for reading, and welcome.