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Are you already wired for next-generation self-service?

Do software suites from the big CRM vendors cover self-service?

In my last column, I examined some of the recent attention being focused on Web self-service. Vendors such as InQuira, Kanisa and Primus have become the primary source of technology components for enabling online customer service and advanced self-service. However, a growing number of incumbent enterprise software vendors are getting into the self-service game as well.

Allen Bonde

The fact that traditional ERP, CRM and call center vendors are adding new functionality or repositioning around Web self-service should be no surprise. E-commerce sales are up, while investors have rediscovered the Internet sector. Web applications and portals have become a key part of the enterprise infrastructure.

Businesses are also spending more on external-facing self-service initiatives and other ways to automate and optimize their customer interactions. In fact, Yankee Group reports that 70% of the large companies it studied increased spending on "dynamic CRM" -- self-service, channel management and portals -- in 2003.

Choosing the right foundation for self-service apps

As a follow-up study to our firm's recent evaluation of the top "pure-play" self-service vendors, we have recently started to assess the self-service offerings (and strategies) of the more traditional enterprise software and call center vendors. Our goal is to not only understand which vendors are best positioned to profit from emerging models like self-service, but to also determine whether companies are already "wired" for next generation self-service simply by being a customer of a vendor such as PeopleSoft or SAP.

Our preliminary findings show that several of the largest application software vendors have incorporated self-service functionality across their products. PeopleSoft's focus is still the call center, but it is also extending its core CRM offering via Web self-service, e-mail handling and chat- or IM-based collaboration. About 30% of its CRM deployments include a self-service component today.

SAP has also made a role-based portal and self-service applications a key theme in its mySAP ERP next-generation ERP system and CRM offerings. Using technology powered by the NetWeaver integration stack and SAP's application platform, customers also have access to a search engine, a knowledge base tool and other components the company has developed for creating Web self-service applications.

Lawson has focused on self-service HR applications and, more recently, on proactive notification ("pushing") rather than having users "pull" information. Kana has tightened its focus on customer service and industry-specific applications and, along with competitor eGain, is now more out in front with its self-service software.

Among call center infrastructure providers, voice is still the primary focus, driven by VXML, Microsoft's emerging speech application language tags (SALT) standard and the voice portal model. However, in speaking with vendors such as Aspect, there is some consensus in this sector that the notion of a single application for voice and Web self-service is still a ways off.

In general, the large packaged software vendors are more focused on extending transactional systems than providing advanced search, problem resolution or question-answering capabilities. And the traditional call center and CRM players still look at self-service from a voice, rather than Web perspective.

Integrated or best-of-breed?

While customers of these vendors may get some self-service functionality "for free," most of the large enterprise software players don't offer the natural language search, personalization or knowledge management functionality that is increasingly required by sophisticated self-service. In addition, the presentation layer -- really where the "rubber hits the road" for effective self-service -- has historically not been a strength of these vendors, compared to those that began on the Internet or on the consumer side.

All this brings up a classic question: Do you choose an integrated or best-of-breed offering? Our view, given the state-of-the-art in self-service technology and best practices, as well as the capabilities of the traditional enterprise software vendors, is that there is currently no one unified platform for addressing all self-service requirements. However, e-commerce platform vendors, including ATG, BroadVision and even Edocs are moving in this direction.

For more information

See why Peppers & Rogers Group thinks a lot of companies are making e-service mistakes

Find out how self-service automation is cutting down on contact center costs

At least in the near term, most companies will deploy self-service applications in a best-of-breed approach. For example, Novell is using both Siebel and Kanisa as the foundation for its new next-generation customer service infrastructure. Therefore, several incumbents are building partnerships with the newer self-service firms, and why systems integrators are building practices oriented toward this space.

This is good news for companies looking for help in building out their next-generation self-service infrastructure and applications. And potentially even better news for the software and services companies that can provide the missing components -- and wiring -- to help companies take advantage of these new models.

Allen Bonde is the president of Allen Bonde Group Inc., a Wellesley Hills, Mass.-based management consulting and strategic advisory firm focused on the CRM, business intelligence and Web self-service markets. E-mail him at:

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