Firms Look To Clarify Online CRM With New Tools

Data comes streaming into organizations’ data banks and the flow is constant. The amount of data an organization can capture seems to grow every day, and even more is flowing in for those firms with e-commerce initiatives.

While managing this data is clearly important, determining how best to interact with customers or clients based on that new data coming in through the Internet is important as well, says Lou Agosto, director of research with the Giga Information Group in Chicago.

Traditional customer relationship management (CRM) software has been used by many firms to manage customer data, but it too is evolving into new forms thanks to the emergence of the Internet.

According to Agosto, adapting a traditional CRM solution to an Internet-based model is one key issue that organizations are being forced to face, or will most likely have to face at some point. “The Internet is for real and here to stay,” he said.

Peggy Menconi, a research director with AMR Research in Boston, said CRM has emerged as a solid and useful tool for companies seeking to better understand their customers.

“There’s a lot of information locked up in databases, and that’s where CRM comes in,” she said. “Before (CRM), you dumped all your information into a database and then cut and pasted what you needed out of it. Now you can do a lot more.”

However, one challenge facing Internet businesses remains that of creating a structure that is adaptable to the unique needs of the online-based business, and also one with which customers can interact. The difficulty, said Agosto, is that while this is something many e-businesses need right now, companies in the data warehousing and data analysis/mining business are just beginning to create products for this specific need. “You can’t wait two years to do this,” he said.

To complement a good online CRM solution, a vendor’s offering needs to not only have Web functionality, but also an application that can sort through the database in order to segment data to the customer, Menconi said.

The solution should also allow for marketing campaigns to be developed for specifically identified customer segments: For example, special discounts for customers who purchase large orders. Automated responses will be developed based on customer information in the database, and customers will receive e-mails or be notified when they contact the organization.

Finally, a good online CRM solution should also have the ability to effectively monitor everything, Menconi said.

One company that is attempting to meet these requirements for Internet-related applications is Clarify eBusiness Application Unit, a division of Nortel Networks. This July, Clarify plans to begin shipping its eFrontOffice software suite 9.0 with an emphasis on electronic commerce.

“We were not doing electronic commerce before. This is our first foray into the electronic commerce space, so that’s completely different than anything we’ve had before,” said Jonathon Farmer, senior product marketing manager with Clarify eBusiness Application Unit.

Farmer said that the philosophy behind the new version of eFrontOffice software suite 9.0 was to integrate the online and offline portions of their CRM products.

“What we’re doing in the ECRMS (e-business CRM solutions) for the online world is enabling three key areas: e-mail management, customer self-service on the Web and electronic commerce that covers both sides – business-to-business, and business- to-consumer – of the paradigm,” Farmer said.

eFrontOffice attempts to bring together the many ways an organization interacts with a customer (telephone, fax, mail, Web and e-mail), to search through the information collected, and to help an organization develop a custom-tailored profile for when customer interaction takes place.

The idea is to help firms save time and money, and to ensure customer loyalty by ensuring that the information sent to a customer is developed with that customer in mind, explained Farmer.

The previous version of eFrontOffice lacked this kind of interactivity, said Menconi. She added that more focus on marketing and automation would turn the product into a much better solution.

Version 9.0 also comes with a completely changed Web-based architecture from its predecessor, which was CGI-based with just links into the Clarify applications.

“Today we’ve actually object-enabled all the architecture, so customers can actually change and have much more flexibility in building their Web-based applications from Clarify’s applications,” said Farmer.

The e-mail management in the new version of eFrontOffice has also seen some improvement from the previous version. “Before, we were just simply enabling people to send in e-mails – that would become part of a case or a service request – within the Clarify database,” explained Farmer. “Today, we actually do a lot more than that. We can do auto response where a customer sends in an e-mail and the system, without human intervention, can send back a response to that customer’s question.

“We actually help the agent to answer the question by classifying what the e-mail content is and then providing suggested templates with suggested answers to that agent to read through and say that it is correct, and then send it out.”

Giga’s Agosto said that Clarify’s direction with its software suite is a step in the right direction, but added that several other companies have targeted this area as well.

“There is no one company that has the answer, and it’s going to be hard to be heard above the shouting,” Agosto said. “There is Siebel Systems, who invented CRM, and they’re big and they’re bad.”

Teresa Wingfield, research director with Current Analysis in Palo Alta, Calif., agreed with Agosto’s analysis, and added that while Clarify does have “one of the better solutions” the company’s focus up until now has been on call centers.

“They’re more in the mid-market range,” Wingfield said. “I don’t see them in large enterprises. They’re not as strong in marketing solutions or for automation.”

“The disadvantage they have is it’s a new technology, and the critical question is can they build on awareness,” added Agosto.

Indeed, Clarify has been able to capitalize on its strength in dealing with call centers and their relationship with Nortel Networks, who purchased Clarify for US$2.1 billion last year, pointed out AMR’s Menconi. “In this customer-driven world you need to let your customers contact you anytime and anywhere, and who’s better at that than a communications company?”

Clarify, based in San Jose, Calif., can be contacted at