Purolator dispatches call centre system to the cloud

There’s a lot going on behind the scenes at Purolator Courier to get all those packages delivered on time – the trucks, the drivers, the dispatchers, the admin staff – and now cloud computing can be added to the list.

Innovapost, the joint venture between IT services firm CGI and Purolator affiliate Canada Post, recently completed a successful deployment of a customized call centre application based on Salesforce.com’s cloud-based platform that will be used by more than 400 agents. The end product will be used to create a consistent experience across the various channels Purolator customers may use, including an interactive voice response (IVR) system and the company’s Web site.

According to David Rea, senior vice-president of Purolator Client Services at Innovapost, the goal was to streamline the costs and some of the manual processes involved with answering calls about the status of a parcel while in transit. Agents traditionally have had to access multiple systems in order to do this, he said, but the Salesforce.com-based system has proven successful enough that it has also been rolled out to Purolator’s sales teams.

Purolator Courier depends on Innovapost to act as a sort of outsourced technology provider, and Rea’s team concluded that a cloud-based offering offered the potential for lower costs than an on-premises product. Innovapost also chose to adopt the Agile methodology, which has a reputation for considerable speed of execution, for developing and implementing the system. Although the project has ended up achieving Rea’s goals, he said getting there wasn’t particularly easy.

“There were a lot of challenges with the integration,” he said. “What I would say is whatever the usual problems you run into with integration are, we ran into them.”

This included matching data types, security concerns about opening up Purolator’s development environment to Salesforce.com, and the use of Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP). “Not everybody’s SOAP is the same,” Rea warned. “We had some issues figuring that out.”

Like many large organizations, Purolator opted several years ago to set up a service-oriented architecture (SOA), which promises a more logical approach to allocating IT resources, but the Salesforce.com project created performance issues.

“There were some response time issues which took some time to fine-tune so that from an agent’s point of view, it’s a short time-frame,” Rea said. “It’s even more important from a customer’s point of view. You can’t have performance delays. You need to get it down to the sub-second level.”

Andrew Leigh, product marketing director at Salesforce.com, said customers need to base their integration strategy around specific processes that will be affected by the implementation, rather than trying to tackle everything at once. They should also explore the full opportunity the end-system will offer them, he said.

“With the cloud a lot of benefits are not only at the data layer but the ability to do synchronous integration at the logic layer and the presentation layer in terms of a mashup,” he said. “Once you’ve identified what you want to integrate, think about the approach – do you use packaged middleware or build it yourself?”

Another key element is identifying the subject matter experts within your vendor organization, according to Rea.

“Salesforce went through a learning process as much as we did,” he said. “The majority of their customers are relatively small companies and they don’t often end up with these large projects. You had to learn who you needed to talk to about what. When you got to the right person, it worked out very well.”

Besides Salesforce.com’s own team, Innovapost also worked with a software-as-a-service company called Appirio Inc. based in San Mateo, Calif. to assist with the integration work.

Rea had hoped that using the Agile development methodology would make the project go by quickly, but the integration challenges didn’t allow that. He said Innovapost learned a lot of useful lessons, however, about the benefits Agile can bring.

“In the case of Agile, if you don’t have people who can make decisions in the room as you’re building it, you end up with a lot of cycling around,” he said, adding that some vice-presidents at Purolator, including the director in charge of the contact centre, were a little taken aback by how much time was required. “You have to come to the meeting and help build the systems.”

Leigh said many Salesforce.com customers are adopting the same methods.  

“It’s one of the better development methodologies for the cloud,” he said of Agile. “As opposed to (the) Waterfall (methodology), it’s focused on rapid development, things that are iterative. You can build quickly a few days or a few weeks. It’s breaking it into chunks that are four weeks or four to six months.”

Since the initial rollout, Innovapost has continued to tweak the system to better meet Purolator’s needs, which Rea said has illustrated some of the various management considerations around cloud computing. “When you have your own system and you’re looking to optimize the database or index, you can trace code, change indices, but with Salesforce, you can’t do that. You don’t have those tools,” he said. “It can be figured out, but because you’re a tenant, you don’t have freedom of action with your own systems. It takes a little longer to work with these things.”

And if you’re going to interface with other cloud systems or you own back-end systems, you should assume it’s the same as any other full-build project, Rea advised. “There’s all the usual things you have to do about documentation and experimenting and performance issues. It’s getting better, there are more tools out, but there’s also a lot of hype in that area.”

Then there’s the hurdle that has made many Canadian organizations reluctant to enter the cloud: data sitting in someone else’s data centre. In this case, Salesforce.com’s data centre is in California while Purolator’s are in Toronto and Montreal, as is its call centre. Rea said Innovapost went through a process before it even engaged with Salesforce.com to make sure its data centre had achieved the SAS 70 auditing standard certification. There were also discussions around the possibility that Purolator data could one day be subject to the U.S. Patriot Act.

“The Salesforce lawyers struggled to find an accommodation and the lawyers we used also struggled with it,” Rea said. “What it came down to was that regardless of the jurisdiction, you need to execute your best efforts to ensure that only authorized access is allowed. The Patriot Act isn’t really any different. It’s more of an emotive and public relations exercise than a real legal concern.”

Although the cost savings and other deliverables have been met, Rea said Innovapost was surprised by one of the metrics that were used: average talk time for a call centre agent. Ideally companies want this as low as possible, so that agents can take as many calls as possible.

“What happened is the talk time went up,” he said. “People were upset at first, but then we pointed out that all the simple calls were now being done by the IVR and the Web site. What’s left is the complicated stuff. That takes longer.”


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