Customer Service Integration

This week’s report is our 1Q2014 Customer Service Update. Briefly, 1Q2014 was a quiet quarter for customer service. Customer growth was down. Only Clarabridge improved significantly in both customer acquisition and repeat business. Product activity was light. Five of our suppliers did not make any product announcements. Company activity was light. Four suppliers did not make any company announcements. Most significantly, Verint acquired KANA. Clarabridge earned a Customer Service Star for 1Q2014 for outstanding customer growth, for significant company activity, and for earning an excellent product evaluation.

We observed one customer service trend—customer service integration. Very important. Customer Service Integration is one of the key criteria in all of our frameworks for evaluating customer service products. Customer service integration can reduce cost to serve and increase customer satisfaction. Integration expands and streamlines the customer service experience. It makes it easier for customers to get answers to their questions and solutions to their problems. It makes it easier for customer service agents to help customers.

For example, from our framework for evaluating virtual agent/virtual assisted-service products, we state, “Through integration with external customer service applications, virtual agent software product deployments can escalate to assisted-service chat or contact center telephone channels, deliver virtual assisted-service on social networks, and/or can answer a wider range of questions, questions that involve the data in cases and accounts, for instance. Integration makes virtual agents more powerful, creating a richer, broader, and deeper virtual assisted-service experience. Integration lowers cost to serve, deflecting/avoiding high-cost interactions with live agents.”

The important integration targets for several types of customer service applications are shown in the Table below. Our evaluation frameworks are the source.

Customer Service Integration
Customer Service Application Type Integration Targets
Virtual agent
  • Account management
  • Case management
  • Contact center
  • Knowledge management
  • Live chat
  • Social networks
Social customer service
  • Account management
  • Case management
  • Contact center
  • Communities
  • Knowledge management
Contact center/Case management
  • Account management
  • Communities
  • Knowledge management
  • Live chat
  • Social networks/Social customer service
  • Virtual agents

Table 1. In this Table we present the key integration targets for several types of customer service applications.

In practice, we’ve seen broad and deep customer service integration within CRM suites and customer service suites such as Oracle Service Cloud and Salesforce Service Cloud. For example, Salesforce Service Cloud and Salesforce Sales Cloud are both implemented on the Salesforce1 platform. Platform resources include account data so account management is built in to Service Cloud. The Service Cloud Console gives agents access to cases. Salesforce Knowledge, the firm’s knowledge management offering, Salesforce Communities, the firm’s internal communities offering, and Live Agent, the firm’s live chat offering, are Service Cloud features. Salesforce Social Hub, a feature of the Radian6 component of Salesforce Marketing Cloud, which provides social listening and interaction capabilities, integrates social customer service. While many of these features are separately packaged and separately priced, all are very tightly integrated and that integration is “in the box.”

Individual customer service applications typically do not package integration with external customer service applications. We’ve heard from suppliers of these applications that integration can be accomplished by their professional services organizations, that it’s a “simple matter of programming,” and that they’ve written this code for many of their customers. That may be so, but professional service programming is not product. New releases on either side of the integration interface mean additional custom programming. Programming is never simple.

Alternatively, licensees of these products commonly do integration “at the desktop.” Customer service agents’ desktops have a window open for each of the applications they need to help answer their customers’ questions or solve their problems. Integration at the desktop is complicated. The integration burden is on agents.

This quarter, eGain, IntelliResponse, and Oracle announced new customer service integration. The eGain SAP Certified integration allows contact center agents to search and access the eGain Knowledge Base from the SAP CRM agent console using eGain’s FAQs, natural language and keyword search queries, topic trees, and guided help search methods. The IntelliResponse Virtual Agent (VA) for Salesforce integrates IntelliResponse VA with Salesforce Service Cloud, adding virtual assisted-service to the Service Cloud Console, the Customer Portal, and Service Cloud Communities. In the Oracle Service Cloud February 2014 release, the dynamic forms API for the Customer Portal enables developers to configure a page that asks the customer for additional information, dynamically, before submitting the incident.

We hope that more customer service suppliers will recognize the value in customer service integration. Customer service integration makes their offerings more attractive. It helps their customers create and deliver a better customer service experience, reducing cost to serve and increasing customer satisfaction. It makes it easier and faster for their customers’ customers to get answers and solutions. That’s’ a win, win, win, a no-brainer for sure.

Back to the Future in Customer Service

This week’s report is a product evaluation of V-Person, the virtual agent offering of Creative Virtual, a privately held supplier that was founded in 2003 and is based in London, UK with offices in the US, India, the Netherlands, and Australia. The report updates our September 19, 2012 evaluation. Since that time, Creative Virtual has made significant, attractive, and very useful improvements to V-Person. Personalization is the most significant, most attractive, and most useful set of capabilities.

Personalized Customer Service

Creative Virtual takes the familiar rules-based approach to personalization, matching customer profile attributes with attributes of knowledgebase answers. Personalization V-Person is the first virtual agent offering to implement personalization. This is a big step forward for virtual agent technology and a big step for customer service.

As we stated in our report, virtual agents that can deliver personalized customer service are especially attractive for account management scenarios in financial services, government, healthcare, telecommunications, and travel. JP Morgan Chase Bank is the first user of V-Person’s personalization. Here’s a screen shot. Note that Richard Simons is CEO Creative Virtual USA.

jpmc&co copy

Rules-Based Personalization

We first saw this rules-based personalization approach in ecommerce systems back in the late 1990s. Rules executed at runtime matched customer/account profile attributes with product attributes to select and deliver content. Ecommerce systems stored and managed all of this account and product data. The stored and managed web content, too. The challenge for analysts and administrators was to minimize the number of rules processed. Too many times, in their zeal to deliver exactly the right content, they would ask the ecommerce systems to execute dozens of rules for every customer interaction. The time needed to process the rules might slow response time so much (Remember that this is 1990s era processing speed and power.) that customers frequently abandoned leave the site. Analysts learned this lesson and reduced the number of rules. Personalization was still pretty good.

Customer service applications have a different challenge to perform rules-based personalization. While their knowledgebase answers or cases/tickets have plenty of predefined attributes, they do not store and manage customer/account data. The customer/account profile attributes needed for personalization are typically stored and managed in CRM systems, billing systems, or account management systems—systems external to customer service applications. Application integration is required to collect the customer profile attributes that personalization rules use to select content.

Customer service applications, particularly virtual agent applications, have not been so good at application integration. Most are missing high-level integration tools and/or packaged integration facilities. (Note though that IntelliResponse, whose IntelliResponse Virtual Agent is among the leading virtual agent offerings, just announced packaged integration with Salesforce Service Cloud. Major progress there.) Some don’t even expose web services or lower level APIs. That makes customer service application integration, the application integration necessary for personalized customer service, low-level programming work, work for the consultants of customer service application suppliers. That’s not a very attractive, very repeatable, or very cost effective approach.

Collecting Customer/Account Profile Attributes in V-Person

Creative Virtual offers two approaches for collecting customer/account profile data. The first is that low-level programming integration. Python scripting is V-Person’s integration mechanism. The second is cookies. Cookies can store the customer/account profile attributes collected by Python scripts in the first approach or analysts can use V-Person’s facilities to collect these attributes through a (virtual agent) question and (customer) answer dialog and then pass the data to web developers to set the cookies.

When use of virtual agent applications requires logging in to a customer support site, and it should for any account management activity, then online collection of customer profile attributes is a decent approach. Using cookies to store them has some advantages but, in this time of high sensitivity to privacy and security, certainly some disadvantages, too.

Back to the Future for Application Integration, too

Through its personalization capabilities, Creative Virtual has broken new ground and raised the bar for customer service. Props to them. The firm’s customers will be able to deliver a better customer service experience to their customers. That’s a terrific first step.

The next step has to be the application integration improvements to make the implementation of personalized customer service faster, easier, and more extensible. Programming by consultants within professional services engagements with customer service suppliers won’t cut it for the long term. What’s needed is exemplified by IntelliResponse’s new packaged integration with Salesforce Service Cloud—packaged integration with the leading CRM and account management products and higher-level integration mechanisms for integration with custom CRM and account management apps. Like rules-based personalization, packaged integration is widely used and well proven. Application integration standards have been around for years. Customer service application providers should go back to the future again.