Collaboration, CRM v.2 and the Truth about Chat

By Allen Bonde

In my last column on the state of customer relationship management (Is CRM Dead?), I proposed a new model for CRM v.2 that offers to drive process improvement to the edge of the enterprise, bring the notion of customer interaction management into the mainstream and—if deployed smartly—actually serve the dual purpose of improving customer satisfaction and lowering operational costs. At one level, the goal of CRM v.2 is to create content and applications that are customer-centric rather than process-centric, and also provide a means for users to not only help themselves, but also help each other.

While self-service models, new-age knowledge management and more flexible on-demand deployment models are driving this next wave of CRM, an increasingly important foundation is collaboration. From blogs and wikis to IM and user forums, collaboration applications are undergoing a bit of a renaissance, especially as a business tool. At the same time, there still are a sizable number of “old-school” collaboration tools like Lotus Notes in many large organizations.

With more than 1,000 vendors, according to industry watcher Collaborative Strategies, and accounting for software sales of between $1 billion and $4 billion depending on whom you ask, the collaboration sector is both an emerging and an established market. It’s also incredibly diverse, with tools supporting online communication, like Web conferencing and IM; publishing and sharing via forums, whiteboards and blogs; and coordination of resources or knowledge, like knowledge base tools and groupware applications. The roster of vendors is equally diverse, from IBM and its Lotus offerings and Microsoft with Live Meeting, Groove Networks and SharePoint, to CRM and self-service platform providers like Knova and Sento, which bundle collaboration capabilities as part of an overall solution, as well as emerging “pure-play” vendors like GroveSite, Jive Software and Socialtext.

Help Each Other, Help Yourself

As a customer service and marketing tool, the growth of collaboration applications mirrors the rise of intranets and Web applications in the mid-1990s. On one hand, consumer adoption of tools like IM, SMS, blogs and social networks has generated market demand, and even brought these technologies into corporate environments as home and work roles become increasingly blurry. This is especially the case for consumer goods and services companies targeting teen and young adult buyers. For these markets, it’s not a choice to offer online communities or to publish a blog or to support the latest mobile devices; it’s a competitive necessity.

On the other hand, as IDC has noted, as e-mail comes under scrutiny because of security risks, IM has become a serious collaboration tool within many businesses. When you couple the growth of corporate IM with the mainstream adoption of Web conferencing, and the growing role of user forums in customer service and e-commerce environments as an alternative to both assisted, agent-delivered support and self-service, there is clear demand emerging from the business side as well—not only for CRM v.2, but also for other “inter-enterprise” solutions like partner management or purchasing networks.

The role of collaboration with self-service applications like online support is particularly compelling. Organizations such as Apple, eBay, Electronic Arts, IBM and Novell have made forums a key interaction channel within their developer communities and retail online environments. For a growing number of users, after (or even before) searching for a solution, they check the forum for a suggestion or solution. From a cost perspective, there is true double-leverage, as the business not only doesn’t get a call…it also doesn’t even need to create and post the solution!

Chat Actually Works!

While blogs and forums are starting to find their roles in online service and support, perhaps the one collaboration technology that has always had a role—but is still rather unappreciated—is chat. Yes, there are some poorly executed chat deployments. For example, when canned content is overused or response times drag on. But as our Strategy and Advisory Services practice continues to study the use of chat in multi-channel service environments, it’s becoming clear that with the right “enterprise strength” chat platform, agent training and user expectations, chat actually works. And in some cases works so well that there is almost immediate business ROI, and customer satisfaction is higher than with telephone support.

For businesses and call center management, chat offers potentially greater productivity given the opportunity to have multiple, concurrent chat sessions (the industry practice appears to be around three sessions, although some agents in high-tech companies we have studied have as many as four to six), a built-in audit trail and the ability to push out content or webpages. While there are a number of chat tools on the market, when it comes to enterprise chat, some of the leaders include Talisma, the driving force behind the recently formed Enterprise Chat Consortium, which counts AOL, Dell and Microsoft among its members, InstantService and LivePerson, which has traditionally been a favorite among e-commerce and online marketing types.

While there seems to be a real upside for chat—and chat vendors—organizations should also be (re)examining other collaboration tools as they create their CRM v.2 strategy. Some questions to consider include: How should corporate use of IM be managed and/or monitored? Is chat currently being used effectively in online sales and marketing situations? Is it time to bring your forums in house? Should employee blogs be encouraged or discouraged (a hot topic at the recent Enterprise Software Summit)? Is all your ad hoc knowledge, contained in e-mails, forums, blogs, etc., accessible by customers and employees from one place?

Considering these types of questions is a good starting point for examining your existing capabilities and assessing potential roles for various collaboration tools going forward. It’s also a good way to start down the path of creating a robust strategy for putting the customer back in C-R-M, a business goal everyone should share.

Allen Bonde is the senior vice president of strategy & marketing at eVergance, a management consulting and systems integration company focused on CRM optimization and Web self-service. Prior to that, he was the founder of strategic advisory firm ABG Inc., a practice expert at McKinsey, director of management consulting at Extraprise, and an analyst at the Yankee Group. You can reach him at abonde@eVergance.com.

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