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eService Application Selection Guide 

eService Application Selection Guide

eService Application Selection Guide

9/4/2003
By Donna Fluss
ICCM Weekly

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The eService market is relatively mature and there are many functionally rich applications for prospects today. It’s a very good time to buy or rent (lease) an eService application, as most vendors have been hit hard by reduced revenues during the past couple of years and are realistic about their pricing. But prospects should also be aware of some significant risks. Prospective customers need to consider a vendor’s viability – is this a company that is going to be in business supporting and improving their application in two or three years? And, does the vendor have the financial strength to invest adequately in new product development? Prospects need to assess the vendor’s product strategy – is the vendor’s strategic direction in line with the prospect’s current and future business needs? Does the vendor provide consulting and integration services or are these functions performed by a third party? It’s also very important to find a vendor who has vertical depth. Yes, eService is a horizontal issue, affecting every business – profit and not-profit, government agencies and educational organizations. But how eService is applied and specific priorities vary by organization. So, finding a vendor with a good track record in your particular field or industry is critical for the success of the implementation.

First Step in the Selection Process
Unless you have a lot of time on your hands and spare IT and business resources, finding an application that is easy to implement and use is essential. There are systems that are expected to take a year or more to implement (such as enterprise resource planning), but eService isn’t one of them. A company should be able to successfully implement two or three eService modules, such as an E-mail response management system (ERMS), a web self-service module and a chat module within two to four months. Of course, being able to implement quickly depends upon the company having clean information available to support the ERMS library and the web self-service environment. However, as the ongoing success of the eService environment is only as good as the accuracy of the data used to feed the systems, it’s just as critical to purchase a system with a response library or knowledge base that is easy to update and maintain. If you need the vendor’s assistance to update your library of responses for any part of the system, it’s unlikely that your system will be successful on an ongoing basis. In short, it’s essential to go with an application that is easy to use, implement and maintain and that fits into your existing systems environment without requiring a great deal of change.

Financial Viability
Once you find a couple of applications that meet your needs and are relatively easy to implement, use and maintain, take a close look at the vendor’s financials. Many vendors in the eService marketplace are not financially strong. Even though eService applications should not take long to implement, once installed they become an essential component of your contact center and servicing infrastructure and are not easy to pull out. It’s important to assume that you are making a five-year commitment, so selecting a vendor that is expected to be in business for the next five years is ideal, but may not be realistic. (Even stable vendors are at risk of being acquired, as we are seeing with Oracle’s attempt to acquire PeopleSoft, but it’s still important to minimize your company’s risks in this area.)

Product Functionality
During the customer relationship management (CRM) craze at the end of the 1990’s, enterprises bought a lot of software they didn’t need and probably are never going to use. Some won’t even remember that it’s sitting on the shelf at a later date and even if they do, it may no longer meet their requirements. Even when CRM software was flying off the shelves, vendors offered substantial discounts for functionality or licenses that had no immediate use. Well, pass it up. Buy what you need and build future purchasing discounts into your contract but don’t invest in software or extra licenses just because of a compelling price.

It is, however, prudent to purchase eService software from a vendor that offers complementary modules that you are considering buying in the near future (within the next 18 months). For example, if you are starting with web self-service but know that you are going to implement an ERMS within the next 18 months, it makes sense to find a vendor that sells both and offers a single knowledge base that is shared by both of these applications.

Integration
Yes, you can implement most eService modules without integrating them with your CRM and other enterprise servicing systems. However, the value of your eService offerings increases exponentially, for both your customers and your enterprise, when they are integrated into your overall servicing infrastructure. Integration remains the most time-consuming challenge in the CRM world, but experience and open systems can minimize these challenges. Every eService vendor will tell you that they are extensible markup language (XML)-enabled and the majority will tell you that they are open and use web-services. This is good but still doesn’t ensure a smooth integration. The best indicator of an application’s ease of integration is previous experience. If a vendor tells you that they or their systems integration partner have done this particular integration multiple times, there is a good chance that they will know how to make it work in your environment. It’s still prudent to speak to two to four integration references. If the vendor can’t come up with references, the integrations probably didn’t go as well as they’d like you to believe or they didn’t do them at all. In either case, your prospective integration initiative is at risk.

Best-of-breed vs. Suite
Neither best-of-breed nor suite is a definitively better choice; the best answer is dynamic, based on the needs of your company and the opportunities in the market. There have been periods of greater than one year when only best-of-breed vendors sold a specific application functionality that gave a company a competitive advantage. We saw that with ERMS; it took years before customer relationship CRM and enterprise resource planning (ERP) suite vendors adopted this functionality and, in many cases, what’s sold by these suite vendors is still inferior to the dedicated eService offerings. If prospects had waited for their CRM or ERP suite vendors to offer a functionally rich ERMS application, it would have taken close to three years. Many multi-function suite vendors continue to scare prospects with the specter of the “integration challenge.” They are right that it’s easier to go with a fully integrated suite of products, but prospects have to weigh their options carefully, keeping in mind that there are costs associated with both integration and gaps in functionality. If a particular functionality in a suite isn’t available or is inferior to the offering of a point solution provider, then the organization should conduct an ROI analysis to determine which product offers the greatest benefit.

Application Service Providers (ASPs) vs. Purchasing
As recently as two years ago, eService ASPs didn’t have a great deal to offer and much of what they did make available was functionally inferior to the offerings of product vendors. Now, however, there are many functionally rich eService vendors that offer their products for sale or for rent and the surviving “rent-only” eService ASPs have improved their solutions. The decision either to purchase or to rent is often driven by budgetary constraints – whether an organization has capital funds or just access to an operating budget. It’s unfortunate that important software decisions are being driven by companies’ artificial budget limitations. In most cases, it makes more sense to purchase an application if it is going to be used for more than three years. So organizations that host to avoid a large up-front capital expenditure are often not making the optimal long-term decision. The good news for renters is that they are not compromising on functionality and, in some cases, the accompanying services justify the rental decision.

As with many aspects of making the decision about eService investments, conducting an ROI analysis of the buy vs. lease options will recommend the right course of action.

Final Thoughts
It’s a buyer’s market but before making a purchase or rental, know exactly what you want and always check references very carefully – this will help avoid unpleasant surprises. Conduct an ROI analysis to determine which solutions provide the greatest benefit to your company. There is no way to guarantee that the vendor you select is going to be in business in three or five years but protect yourself in your contract, even if it slows up the acquisition.

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