Customer self-service (the solution)

Having seen “the problem” of shifting tasks from inside the enterprise, to your co-operators, today I will propose “the solution”.

The basic idea is to let these co-operators become part of your organization. Let them “in”. Let them become users of your application systems. Let them pull the information that they need instead of you working to push it to them.

e-Business started with the basic idea a long time ago. And so, electronic shops were created. You can now go “inside” a million shops, browse through the products, order them, pay on-line and get on-time notifications about the status of your order. That was a real breakthrough. But it is not enough, because it stops that the final stage of the order. I think that we must have agreed so far that Sales is not the only function that your business is performing, right?

How do you manage to give functionality to your co-operator, before the Sales Order and after that? Through a web portal that goes beyond the logic of the e-shop. There, I said it: web presence and e-shop are no longer enough. You have to reach out to your co-operators with new ways and services. Hence my title: “Customer self-service”. Systems, portal or web services that enable the co-operator to perform actions inside your application systems. These actions are targeted to give them some value while at the same time reducing the time that you consume with trivial tasks with them. So, they are servicing themselves through your systems.

Actually, the idea is not new. It is just not as grown in the minds of people as the e-shops. Remember what your bank is doing? It is called web-banking and it is exactly the same: They have opened traditional functions of the bank teller (and much more) to the web, so that you may use it, without the presence of the bank employee. It is faster, easier and cost-saving for the bank. This is exactly what I propose for your SMB and, no, it will not cost the Gross National Product of a small country to do it. What I have in mind is a new module of the web system that the enterprise is currently operating: On the same system that you keep you Accounting, Inventories, Customer balances, you could build a “secure area” where co-operators can enter and execute some of the functions that I described in my previous post.

Of course, possible solutions vary depending on whether you already have deployed an internet business application for your core functions:

  • If you have, then you already have the infrastructure to go “on-line”. If your application is scalable enough, then it may be a matter of weeks before you implement such “customer self-services”. On the other hand, it always depends, on whether the “programmer” is you or an outside vendor, such a traditional software house etc. In these cases (which are obviously the majority) things can get tough; simply because most traditional software houses do not share the above ideas of an open system. Most probably, if you ask them to create something from scratch, it will cost you a lot of money because it’s going to be built as “custom development”. On top, you should also consider that, being a custom development, it will not be part of their standard release planning, so future enhancements that you’ll need, will cost you more than expected.

  • If you haven’t, then you should start thinking about infrastructure, new servers, system software and possible personnel to handle all these things. Then, it is the software itself. Will you develop it or will you turn to an expert? If you are an SMB, then the answer is easy… An alternative to that is to turn your sights to somebody who specializes in this kind of development or maybe even a SaaS provider: You will get your “customer self-service” system with no initial costs, just a monthly “rental”. Of course, you will have to create interfaces from your back-office system to the new one. This can be a hassle, but a necessary one.

    Regarding security and performance, there are quite a few tricky points: Although a hypothetical system may provide the required functionality, is it correct to “board” external users to your internal infrastructure? If your business runs on web server XYZ, is it correct to activate external users to that same server (moreover, is it possible to do so)? Also, what happens if your “visitors” become large in number? Will they seriously affect the performance of your core business application? And the data that they will be querying are going to be pulled out of the corporate database or a “light copy” of it? In the latter case, will it be on-line? Perhaps it is more logical to deploy that “customer self-service” system in a new environment and probably another platform? If so, what will happen with the total cost of the solution?

    …or, you can do something else: Deploy a new system, such as E-ON’s “Retail Internet eXchange”, which is a purely web system, servicing a large part of today’s SMB, such as inventory management, accounting & financials, CRM etc., offered through SaaS for some Euros per month AND with its own “customer-self service” module.

    Anyway you see it, implementing “self-service” functions will drive you to what I call “the next step in systems evolution”. By now, it has become evident that a closed system will serve you well but its scope will always be limited to your company’s physical four walls. So, be sure to board that train and implement self-services!
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