CRM crosses over

One of the few emerging software categories to survive the dot-com crash of the early 2000s was customer relationship management software.

Cash-strapped companies saw in it a cost-effective way to prop up bottom lines by holding onto existing customers. More recently, CRM has been crossing over into government, as agencies facing e-government mandates have come to appreciate the benefits of streamlined, cheaper, yet more effective contact with constituents.

New York City, for example, has for two years run a 311 service for nonemergency calls using CRM software from Siebel Systems Inc. 'Any citizen in New York can call 311 and get an answer to their question, and get pointed to a service,' Siebel spokesman Robert Pinkerton said.

In government, the 'C' in CRM now stands for citizen, but the customer can just as easily be an agency employee visiting a CRM-driven, Web-based help desk to inquire about medical benefits.

Call centers staffed with harried agents inundated with phone calls can access CRM's consolidated data and scripts to finish each call quickly. They can also route calls to a well-used self-service Web portal or interactive voice response system that accesses the same database to handle inquiries typed into the keypad or spoken into a voice recognition system.

Besides serving constituents more efficiently, such automation can reduce labor and IT costs.

Unique to goverment

But experts say CRM is harder to build in government because the greater number of legacy systems makes all-important data consolidation more difficult, and stricter privacy laws put a damper on the breadth or depth of information that customer-facing software agents can see.

Enterprise CRM packages all have at their core a highly searchable knowledge base that holds nearly every piece of information that has been collected about a customer, including paper documents scanned and electronically stored in a document management repository.

Another defining feature is integration with back-office applications, such as enterprise resource planning packages from PeopleSoft Inc., Oracle Corp. and SAP America Inc., where agency human-resource and financial records reside. Without access to such information, the packages would be little more than their progenitors'sales force automation tools.

'When we bring CRM to the government, it's part of a broad solution offering,' said Pat Bakey, SAP America's senior vice president. He cites an ongoing effort at Customs and Border Protection to integrate an existing SAP back-office system with a newer front-office CRM module that helps manage security-sensitive, multiagency interactions with worldwide cargo shippers.

Some agencies, such as the Labor Department, are even beginning to use CRM marketing features to inform constituents of new government benefits. SAP rival PeopleSoft is now encouraging Defense Department customers to tie its venerable human resources management systems to PeopleSoft's Enterprise CRM to improve base-level services for military families who are relocating.

Case management is one CRM feature that is geared more to government than corporations. It not only consolidates past and ongoing records related to a case, but it adds entitlement and contracting rules and workflow to ensure that partners and citizens get what they're entitled to and that the proper people handle the case.

Vendors say homeland security workers are joining traditional health and human services workers as users of CRM case management. 'You name the agency'they have some sort of case manager,' and that makes CRM a good fit, said Pinkerton. 'Fundamentally, case management is a customer-focused exercise.'

Enterprise CRM products also include, or bolt onto, modules that specifically handle the multichannel communications needed to interact at self-service portals, over analog or digital telephones, or by fax.

The hot new communications trend right now for CRM is voice over IP, which encodes voice calls over the same Internet Protocol that carries Web traffic, enabling more-sophisticated call routing and the ability to insert information into more steps in the workflow.

Vendors also have been adding support for personal digital assistants and wireless phones.
E-mail management software is another key component or add-on; it lets agencies offload their more formulaic or easily solved interactions to automated e-mail exchanges.

And business analytics, which takes advantage of the ever-growing treasure trove of customer, employee and partner data, is increasingly used both to measure service quality and to improve other processes, such as contract negotiation and homeland security investigations.

Strong competition

The market share leader in government is Siebel Systems Inc., with the big three ERP vendors coming on strong by adding CRM modules to their enterprise suites, which are already installed at many agencies. RightNow Technologies Inc. and Primus Knowledge Solutions Inc. also can claim significant government business.

Getting the right kind of system in place typically requires major-league consulting from the software vendor or a third-party integrator to build in the agency's unique business rules and regulations.

Vendors and analysts alike agree that the success of a CRM project, perhaps more than most enterprise applications, is unusually sensitive to the underlying business processes it is meant to improve. Implementations at numerous corporations and government agencies have failed for nontechnical reasons.

'The No. 1 problem is, they put the system on top of their bad processes,' said Bob Furniss, president of Touchpoint Associates Inc. of Bartlett, Tenn., a CRM consulting firm. 'If there was ever an industry with outdated, somewhat cumbersome processes, then we find that in the government.'

Furniss said a common problem in government is to focus too much on how work is done internally, rather than on the needs of constituents.

Agencies should instead analyze their processes in such detail that they can draw call maps of the most common inquiries coming into call centers.

Such analyses might provide answers to such questions as, 'Where do we have to transfer the call to another agent because we don't know the answer?' Furniss said. A well-designed CRM system can provide call center agents with answers at such critical junctures.

Some other buying tips:
  • Check references, because failed CRM implementations abound. 'In the government, more than anywhere else, the actual reference, the case study and the implementation experience should be checked,' said Steve Nesenblatt, public-sector director at RightNow Technologies.

  • Pay careful attention to the relationship between your public Web site and traffic entering your call center. 'The call center has sort of been the catch-all for what the customer needs,' said Furniss. 'The Internet has made that worse.'

  • Get buy-in from cross-functional teams and have them design the system together. 'Bring together those business operation owners to talk about the best solution for the agency,' recommended Lisa Jackson, director of HRMS and CRM sales for Oracle's public-sector group.

  • Keep it simple for users. 'Those CRMs that are difficult to use, basically don't get used,' said Bruce Triner, PeopleSoft's vice president of federal sales.


David Essex is a free-lance writer in Antrim, N.H.

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