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Integrating ICR/ERM in Web-centric call centers

This article appears in the issue June 2000 [Volume 9, Issue 5]

Reaps benefits for customers and businesses

The Web browser is becoming document management's common interface. Virtually all business software applications have become Web-centric, with the means to extend a company's business process directly to its customer via the corporate Web site. Whereas a Web site was once considered a luxury, now the dominant perception is that if your company lacks one, it isn't a real company.

In cyberspace, Web-based document management is evolving from a paper replacement vehicle into a means for transforming and re-engineering the business process itself. The Internet browser serves as the low-cost client software, enabling the Internet to become the e-commerce platform for buying and selling goods and services, while the electronic form is the interface for entering the order. The Internet is faster, cheaper and more efficient than paper forms and other communications alternatives, even as it transforms the business process. Documents called electronic forms become an integral part of the e-process infrastructure, including the Internet portal.

Conversations with consultants and users reveal that while the growth rate of paper documents is slowing down, nevertheless, with rare exceptions, IT directors and line-of-business managers do not expect paper volumes to drop in the foreseeable future. Accordingly, senior-level IT, MIS and line-of-business executives are thinking in terms of developing enterprisewide document capture and forms automation strategies. But even as they strategize over automating paper-based management systems, corporate decision-makers would prefer to eliminate paper altogether with e-commerce solutions ... and they are far more willing to spend their money there. Major trends include leveraging fax, electronic data interchange (EDI), Internet and other electronic forms of transactions. That all points toward another senior management business objective: to treat the electronic and paper input streams as one business process.

Many corporate customers are not prepared for e-commerce. It is not unusual to see both faxes and e-mail being printed, then treated as "white mail" for intelligent character recognition (ICR) and manual data entry. The Internet has yet to make even a cameo appearance in most mailrooms. Many companies have elaborate systems in place for dealing with Internet transactions that are completely removed from any mail operations.

Putting a scanner in the corporate mailroom to capture and ICR snail-mail data from paper-based customer correspondence--in combination with an Internet portal for capturing E-mail and Web-based interactive data--produces a state-of-the-art customer service application. Combining Internet-collected customer data with intelligently recognized, imaged data from paper allows the merged data to be treated as one business process. The benefit of applying a common set of business rules--including exception processing, workflow, customer service interface and archiving--to both input channels can represent significant cost savings to a corporation that handles a high volume of customer inquiries. Electronic forms provide the interface between customer and customer service representative (CSR).

Retrieving, viewing and reprinting invoices, credit memos, bills or statements while the customer is on the telephone is the new definition of customer service. The ability of a customer service representative to look at the customer document speeds up transaction time by allowing the customer to easily identify the line items to the service representative. That process is not possible using a transaction database record. A call center interface that is enabled to retrieve and view exact replicas of documents--including those that arrived in the day's snail mail and e-mail--is far more rapid than using an online database to access the multiple screens required to obtain all of the information that is on a bill.

The problem is that in most organizations, document management has not yet been linked to the corporate customer service process. The inability of traditional customer call center systems to retrieve, view and print required documents creates an environment in which many questions cannot be answered. That shortcoming leads to extended connect time with customers and callbacks that result in higher operational costs. Not infrequently, the CSR lacks any access whatsoever to the document data about which the customer is inquiring, so he or she has to request it from the IT department--a procedure that can take days to expedite.

COLD/ERM software is critical

Adherence to a data-centric model has got to change if customer service is to attain optimum efficiency, and it is, slowly but surely, due to the integration of COLD software, rechristened electronic report management (ERM) by IMERGE consultant Mason Grigsby. By intercepting the print stream of a published document, COLD/ERM software captures, indexes and stores formatted computer output such as transaction reports, statements and bills for access by internal users and customers.

Integrating COLD/ERM with Internet/intranet/extranet applications allows users to obtain exact replicas of computer print output and an electronic history that is essentially unlimited. Using COLD/ERM software, virtual, up-to-the-minute databases can be generated; report mining can be facilitated. In other words, integrating COLD/ERM technology into a Web-centric call center system changes its orientation from a data-centric one to document-centric one--and reaps for the user all the advantages that go with it. Once in the hands of a CSR, customers can straighten out problems because the CSR has access to the same document they are calling about--not a series of unconnected data screens. A CSR is able to "push" required documents directly to customers through their Web browser or fax machine, where the customer can react to them online in real time.

By significantly reducing the security, workflow and system integration problems that slow the integration of the Internet portal into traditional paper-based transactions, companies can lower the costs of customer transaction processing and move more quickly to the e-business posture now required for success in the marketplace. Integrated COLD/ERM technology permits Web servers to be used as extensions of a corporate relational database, allowing that information to be published through the Internet or the intranet as desired.

At present, there is no single, turnkey solution that provides fully integrated CRM functionality, but IBM and other integrators in today's marketplace are building them for customers.

When the components (see accompanying story) of a full-featured CRM package are integrated into one system, the scanning and imaging component provides flexible deployment of forms image and data capture, plus integration of technology with an image repository and workflow engine. The COLD/ERM component extends that core solution by adding the legacy data access and Internet connectivity plus integration with workflow. The workflow treats the converged data streams as one business process, while the Web browser functions as a common GUI that can be used at either end of the application--customer or customer service rep. Together the fully integrated CRM system provides the following benefits:

• improved customer service. Today the quality of customer service is a key to competitiveness, but typically only customer interactions handled over the phone are accessible to customer service representatives. By capturing customer interactions (transactions, correspondence, information requests, etc.) received via mail, e-mail or the Web, in their original presentation format and making them available as part of the customer's interaction history record in call center software, the CRM application enables CSRs to provide more personalized service, to do cross-selling and to improve customer retention.

• easier path to electronic transactions. Many companies want to move from paper to electronic customer transactions but are held back by concerns about security, customer service, record-keeping and general unfamiliarity with rapidly changing Internet technology. The fully functional CRM system makes Internet transactions equivalent to paper in terms of security, authenticity, non-repudiation, archivability, etc., in an integrated package that simplifies deployment.

• lower transaction-processing costs. A key benefit of electronic transactions is the elimination of labor-intensive processing of paper: opening envelopes, document prep and sorting, key entry and OCR reject repair, etc., which produces significant savings in paper processing costs. The CRM system provides the infrastructure through which costs can be lowered by accelerating the shift from paper to electronic transactions.

• business process re-engineering tool. Today most companies implement a totally separate business process for paper (high volume) and electronic (typically low volume) input channels. As paper goes down and electronic volumes go up, the inefficiency of that dual-process approach will become increasingly apparent. Applying a single set of business rules, exception-processing workflow, customer service interface, archiving, etc., to both business processes will produce significant cost savings, productivity gains and other process re-engineering benefits.

Buyers and sellers, vendors and users--all can benefit from the implementation of an Internet-enabled, customer call center. Document-centric, Web- centric, CRM is a process-oriented application server solution that brings browsers, legacy output, imaging, business intelligence and linking of disparate systems into customer service and other internal applications without major disruption of the existing infrastructure. This high-value, high-performance electronic commerce and Internet software is a solution that can be seamlessly integrated into the corporate IT environment--maximizing the return on investment and minimizing implementation cost. Web-centric customer relationship management (CRM) is not only cost-effective; it is good public relations.

Ingredients of CRM

A full-featured customer relationship management package consists of five integrated components:

• a scanning, ICR data capture and forms processing platform designed for rapid application deployment. It automates a configurable, production-scalable pipeline of scanning, image enhancement, form identification, OCR/ICR data extraction, reject repair and key-from-image, validation and data formatting, along with a high-capacity image storage repository.

• an integrated Internet transaction processing platform for securing, capturing, processing and archiving customer transactions through the Internet. It provides a comprehensive set of functions necessary to make electronic customer communications equivalent to paper-based transactions in terms of security, authentication, non-repudiation, record-keeping and customer service accessibility, while adding the e-business benefits of lower processing costs, immediate confirmation and one-on-one marketing to the customer. Internet transaction processing integrates a number of third-party components, including Web application servers, electronic forms, EDI and digital signature technology.

• A COLD/ERM platform is used to provide a total history of online electronic statements to internal customer service personnel. Integrating COLD/ERM systems with the Internet also allows customers direct extranet access to those documents any time from their own PCs, literally from anywhere in the world. Security issues must, of course, be resolved, but there is little difference between private network security and Internet security.

• A work process-driven, workflow engine merges the paper transaction and Internet transaction input channels into a common business process for validation, archiving, exception handling, customer transaction fulfillment and customer service access. The output from each channel generates work items that are routed through a programmable sequence of task steps via a workflow engine. The workflow engine provides some of those task steps--such as image archiving, host data upload and customer confirmation--as out-of-the-box functionality, but also allows custom tasks to be added easily.

• The Web browser provides a unified customer service interface that allows customer service representatives to retrieve and view documents (image, Web forms, etc.) that have been processed through the workflow engine. In addition, it enables CSRs to initiate work items in the workflow engine with a single mouse click, and route service requests for fulfillment or resolution to the back office.


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