Friday, November 16, 2007

SOA - bringing CRM, telephony and business together? part 1

It's a Friday, so perhaps time for thinking a bit further ahead.

One of the interesting things about the contact centre (and before that call centre) is that it has three areas that have rarely had more than a passing acquaintance with each other. By areas I mean the the three core functions of telephony (so that you can deal with customers remotely), CRM (which here means the delivery of data and interactions, rather than a specific packaged application) and business process (which is what the contact centre is built to handle and why customers call).

Traditionally self service, or IVR (Interactive Voice Response unit) has high-lighted this separation. It is probably more familiar as " 1for..., press 2 for...., etc..." and is the source of enormous customer frustration. This is mostly because it has come from the telephony world (which focused on scalability, responsiveness, routing, etc... ) rather than the IT or business world. As a result traditional IVR tends to be good at managing telephony but rather poor at integrating with CRM, business processes or being customer specific. Similar disconnects between needs and functionality can be highlighted in CRM or all those manual work-arounds in business processes.

It's into this world that SOA enters.

For those not familiar with IT trend, SOA stands for "Service Orientated Architecture". The idea is to build IT systems out of small components of functionality ("services") that can be put together by business processes to perform tasks. These services are not applications as we know them (though they could be) but are much smaller units of business functionality, such "calculate mortgage interest rate" or "identify & verify customer" and can be used by many different functions. These components can be part of existing applications (which increases efficiency from re-use of existing IT) or even come from third parties outside of the enterprise.

In call centre SOA has arrived first (and perhaps surprisingly) in the self-service environment of voice portal. A key factor was that the development of IP convergence meant that voice could be manged in the IP protocol world of the IT industry. A voice portal is not the the traditional IVR unit and from the proprietary telephony world. Instead is more part of IT and can be thought of an internet portal that presents information by voice rather than by speech. The SOA part of this is that if you have services for any channel (branch desktop, web, etc...) then you can present them in the voice portal. So for example, if you greet customers with a personal message when they log into your web site (e.g. "Welcome Mr. Smith, your most recent order shipped this morning"), the voice portal lets you do the same for the telephone channel. It also lets you present information both on a personalised basis and dynamically, which can dramatically increase your customers' use of self-service.

What voice portals are forcing is a coming together of telephony and CRM and SOA is the most sensible architecture for doing so in a way that aligns with business processes. Cisco, Avaya and Genesys are the clear leaders for voice portal, but in my next post I'll try and explain how things like tooling and service management make for big differences between what the vendors offer amd are critical to being successful with an SOA approach.

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