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Not dead yet: workflow's bright future in customer relationship management

Despite the rash of recent Chicken Little punditry proclaiming the "end of workflow" is at hand, we're actually on the brink of a new workflow generation that will revolutionize the way companies interact with their customers. At its heart, naturally, is the Internet, but not with the crude service request-and-track applications that have characterized the first generation of Web-based workflow. The next generation will leverage distributed objects and intelligent agents to provide something that looks and feels like a whole new kind of computing. At the same time, those emerging technologies promise to take workflow far beyond its old preoccupation with productivity, back-office automation and knowledge worker collaboration.

The new frontier is managing customer relationships, incorporating the customer "demand chain" into the business process in the same way that workflow automation in the past has focused on the supply and service delivery chains. Suddenly, customer service, not cost or quality, has become the source of competitive advantage in business. But rather than simply trying to lower the costs of providing service, companies are starting to realize that those costs can be turned into incremental revenue opportunities, largely because the Internet provides direct interaction with the customer.

Leading the way among the workflow vendors is Plexus (www.plx.com), whose achievements in providing Java-based Web access to production imaging and workflow services were described in this column last summer. Today, the company has sharpened its focus on customer relationship management solutions, and its Java Business Objects are blazing a new trail for workflow.

In general, customer relationship technology has three basic objectives:

  • Reduce customer service transaction costs through automation and efficiency. This has been the long-standing mission of workflow technology, and the focus of most Web workflow to date. Its application in call center applications, described in last month's column, typifies how workflow supports this objective of customer relationship solutions. Workflow can consolidate and automate tasks, eliminate expensive callbacks and shift work to the customer through intelligent Web forms for data entry and self-service.

  • Sell more to existing customers, turning service requests into revenue opportunities. Every request for service through the Web represents a customer who is willing to describe, in some fashion, his organization, business problem, technology environment and needs, along with a direct electronic path--in the form of an E-mail or IP address--to his desktop. Marketers can't ask for more than that.

  • Find new customers, by integrating sales and service delivery directly into marketing activities. Where company Web sites once focused mainly on simple information and advertising, now the entire customer demand chain--from need recognition, to solution search, to selection, purchase, ongoing support and upgrade or replacement--can be integrated, personalized and executed via customer self-service solutions.

    The latter two objectives, with their emphasis on revenue and customer retention rather than costs, is giving new strategic purpose to workflow technology. Workflow provides the task automation and integration, business rules, scheduling and tracking engine, role-based security model and process management metrics needed to transform company Web sites into a switchboard for customer relationship management. But because customers are external to the company's computing infrastructure, network and security model, a new form of workflow technology is needed.

    The next-generation workflow platform will rely heavily on intelligent agents. Plexus "Courier Agents" provide what it calls "autonomous workflow," in which goal-directed work items move freely over the Internet between the company and customer, maintaining process integrity, security and tracking without imposing additional resources on the customer client environment. These agents are intelligent software programs that maintain and manage pointers to all work item data and methods, routing rules and history log, along with security components that allow work item delivery to customers over the Internet. To interact with the work item, the customer needs only a Web browser, E-mail client or other program capable of running the Java Virtual Machine (JVM).

    Courier Agents also support offline work and an occasionally connected user model. Customers essentially "delegate" work on their behalf to the agents, which are sent over the Internet to carry out their tasks. Customers need only be connected to the network long enough to transmit or receive the agent. Agents can prefetch or push complete work items, including data and documents, to the user desktop, and forward completed work items to the next step in the process.

    Courier agents work in conjunction with many other kinds of intelligent agents to support customer relationship management. User Interface agents can provide intelligent data acquisition through an "interview" combined with decision tree logic. For example, the agent can collect and display product options and price comparisons. Customer Service agents can watch over the progress of a service request, keeping the customer abreast of changes in status, or presenting options as they come up. Personal Agents, sometimes called Smart Alerts, can monitor news, prices or other changing information and notify the user based on defined triggers. And Desktop Integration Agents, integrated into common applications like Outlook, Excel or Quicken, can receive and display information received from other agents, and offer a standard interface for third-party agent providers.

    Consider how the Web and agent technology will transform that old workflow war horse, home mortgage origination and servicing, by focusing on the customer demand chain. To serve the need recognition element of the chain, a bank or mortgage broker provides an intelligent agent that notifies its customers whenever the mortgage rate changes; the agent is available to potential new customers through various Web sites. For customers actively shopping for mortgages, it provides another agent that can research competitive rates, or prequalify the applicant. Filling out the mortgage application documents can be expedited using workflow Courier Agents, tying the home appraisal and title company into the process. After closing, mortgage servicing and even electronic bill presentment can be brought into the business process using agents and workflow technology.

    The result--a mortgage operation as an integrated process from marketing all the way through monthly payment processing--is overwhelmingly more attractive to a banker today than the expedited paper shuffling that yesterday's workflow accomplished. Is workflow dead? With the move into customer relationship management, its impact is only beginning.

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