They're Us, But We're Not Them!

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IT Management Issue

Many businesses abdicate their responsibility to harmonize their customer engagement model, maintaining separate organizations and infrastructures based upon the way (e.g. Web, retail, phone) in which a customer chooses to interface with the company (See Figure 1 below). Consequently, these businesses project the problems they refuse to address onto their customers. They do not build their organizations and infrastructures from the "Customer in."

Figure 1: A representative "As We Are Today" Customer Engagement Model.

A recent IBM television commercial highlighted the problem citing the frustrations of a woman trying to return a lamp she bought online to the bricks & mortar incarnation of the same company. The implied response from the store clerks was in effect "They're us, but we're not them!"

The rapid acceleration of the Internet as a direct to consumer (sub)channel is just the latest change force in the continuing evolution of how companies engage customers. While many companies are quick to launch technology projects to participate in the latest wave, they often fail to understand that much of the success of these efforts will depend on reconciling the business and organizational issues tied to customer engagement.

Although there are certainly technical challenges, this is not primarily a technology problem it is a management problem.

Business Implications

The customer engagement process must be designed holistically for a business to effectively and efficiently engage customers. We suggest that the company must understand the unique types of customers that engage them and the means by which they desire to do so. The company must also then decide which of these avenues of engagement it will choose to support. Only then, can the technical architecture and resultant infrastructure be put in place to support the capabilities that will make the desired customer engagement experience happen.

It is not uncommon for companies who explore their customer engagement processes to find out that serious disconnects exist within the infrastructure that preclude the delivery of a quality customer experience. As seen in Figure 1 (previous section), this may include:

  • Separate application systems that support different customer contact points (e.g. Phone vs. Web vs. bricks & mortar)
  • Incompatible and/or redundant databases
  • Unacceptable latency periods transferring data between systems

Ultimately this all translates down to costs:

  • Opportunity costs in the form of dissatisfied customers who may ultimately choose to do business elsewhere
  • Tangible costs associated with supporting a technical infrastructure that may well have been designed for doing business in another era

It is business management's responsibility to ensure that their customer representatives never again utter, "They're us, but we're not them!" to a customer.

Information Technology Management Response

Building consensus around a customer engagement model is senior management's responsibility and is essential to making correct IT decisions. If such a model does not exist, IT should champion its creation before committing to an e-Commerce initiative. The model does not need to be developed at excruciating levels of detail, but should clearly highlight:

  • Major customer types
  • The organizations and means by which the customers interact with the company
  • The major technology platforms that support this engagement

Often this can be accomplished with two single page drawings, one that shows the existing model, and the other, the desired state. (A simplified "Future state" model is provided in Figure 2 below. Note that there is a single infrastructure for all the various ways in which the end-consumer comes into direct contact with the customer.) These models can then be used to engage executive stakeholders, both individually and collectively, in dialogue that will highlight areas of disagreement, provide a context for issue resolution and ultimately deliver consensus.

Figure 2: A representative "Future State" Customer Engagement Model.

Customer engagement should be the result of conscious management decisions that clearly articulate what customer-types will be engaged through what means, as well as many qualitative factors that help to define the "experience" the customer has when in contact with the company. This executive conversation is enabled through the use of current and future-based customer engagement models that identify all of the ways in which the company's major customer types can interface with the company and the systems utilized to support this engagement. If such a conversation is not happening, then it may well be the CIO's responsibility to push the issue.

With a valid customer engagement model in hand, the IT organization has the necessary context to engage business managers in a discussion to determine required business capabilities. It also has developed critical information necessary to make wise architecture and infrastructure decisions. If done correctly and if done in conjunction with organizational and process change plans, then the right people and systems will have the right capabilities and information, at the right time to deliver the desired experience to satisfied customers at every contact point.

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