CRM's Holy Grail

How SOA can unlock a 360-degree view of the customer

If customer data is the lifeblood of modern business, Ice.net, a Stockholm provider of mobile access services, was strikingly anemic. The young company was adding customers across Scandinavia at a brisk clip, but its IT infrastructure provided little insight into who those customers were and how they could best be served.

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"The definition of a customer can differ quite significantly depending on what department of a company you talk to. It may be something completely different to the logistics department than it is for the sales department," says Thomas Norberg, CIO of Ice.net, formerly known as Nordisk Mobiltelefon in Sweden.

Norberg realized that building systems to enable a unified view of customer data was a critical need. But not so long ago, he and his team would have been out of luck. Building what customer relationship management (CRM) vendors like to call the "360-degree view of the customer" used to be a painstaking process that generally revolved around monolithic products from a single vendor.

What's changed? Ice.net's transformation relied on a number of widely applicable trends and breakthroughs that include the rise of service-oriented architecture (SOA) and the use of shared-information data models. Companies are also learning that the keys to developing a flexible and unified CRM system include mapping IT to business processes and bringing IT and line-of-business organizations closer.

It's All About the Data

Ice.net had only been providing service for a few months when Norberg joined in early 2007, but its IT infrastructure was already incapable of supporting the young company's growth. "Even companies with no legacy systems can wind up with data in silos," says Gartner analyst and Vice President Ted Friedman. As a result, "they get the opposite of the 360-degree customer view."

SOA, when empowered with strong data management practices, can enable that 360-degree view since it can breach the walls separating data with reusable services. But Friedman adds that "we see a lot of SOA projects and investments being made without a lot of thought about data. Ask the average [IT] guy what SOA is about and he'll talk about business process and componentizing applications."

Norberg would agree. "The key is to realize that [a modern IT architecture should be] all about informationand how it relates to other information."

Step one in developing a data-oriented approach to the customer is finding a common language. In the last few years, various industries have developed shared information data models, or SIDs, that give exact definitions of categories such as customers or suppliers. Ice.net drew on the work of the TM Forum, which represents companies in telecom, cable, media and the Internet.

Ice.net needed to build its systems architecture around that data model. Norberg choose two products from Progress Software, an enterprise service bus (ESB) called Progress Sonic, and a data integration tool called Progress DataXtend Semantic Integrator.

Looked at schematically, services such as credit control are plugged into the ESB like Lego blocks, says Norberg. When a new service is ready, the old one is pulled out and replaced. DataXtend is used to create exchange models or mediations between applications and services with different structures and semantics, or definitions.

The first pilot project, integrating the company's online store with the customer and product databases, began in March 2007, and was rolled out in under four weeks. The company used an agile development methodology to add other segments quickly so that by April of this year, nearly all of Ice.net's departments were able to access clean, consistent data, whether it be related to the customer, order intakes or order fulfillments, in real time.

Align Business With IT

Financial services giant Capital One has approximately 50 million customer accounts, roughly 100 times that of Ice.net, but it faced a similar challenge. Capital One had diversified from its core credit card business and, by the end of 2006, had made several acquisitions, including two banks.

"We really need to know who the customer is across different products and what our relationship is," says Capital One CIO Robert Alexander, who saw that storing data in isolated silos was a business obstacle. First on the list for transformation were online services and e-mail. Customers with multiple Capital One products did not want to navigate multiple websites to transact business, and the company needed control over the content, volume and intensity of e-mails it sent to customers.

Alexander's team created what he calls "a single point of truth" about customers by linking the data warehouses in each line of business with a unified data warehouse that reflects information from them all. To limit data replication, Capital One selectively pulls the data from the lines of business and adds it to the central, or analytical, warehouse. (Capital One chose not to disclose its technology partners.)

SOA, and its use of standards and reusable services, is a "best practice" that the company has implemented across its IT infrastructure, including the new enterprise customer management team, says Alexander. The team focuses on using technology to enhance customer experience through channels and activities that no single line of business owns, such as Internet marketing and sales, online servicing, customer e-mails, and mobile banking. What's striking about the transformation is Capital One's move to align business processes with IT. Alexander created a team of representatives from marketing, IT and operations, all of whom ultimately report to him. Why marketing? Their closeness to customers means they are in a position to spell out IT requirements needed to improve customer-related issues, he says.

Creating the single point of truth took about seven months in 2007, as part of an ongoing effort to deliver a new enterprise online servicing platform.

The creation of that "360-degree customer view" is a big step forward for Capital One, as it was for Ice.net. Five years ago, that leap would not have been feasible. It's still difficult, but a new approach to architecture and business alignment are making what was once a marketing slogan a reality.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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