USDA research group uses TeleMagic to tap multiple databases

The USDA agency needed a way to
define its customers and their needs, and how to match the two.

The Economic Research Service, the 550-employee research and information arm of the
Agriculture Department, has found an application to help it serve citizens.

Each day, up to 50 ERS employees man the agency’s phones, Web site and mail room
to answer requests from a large customer base. ERS workers answer a daily barrage of
requests for catalogs, information on classes and agendas for programs.

The service mails out brochures and other publications, or workers talk to the public
if a written response won’t do.

The service, in keeping with the National Performance Review and other government
reinvention edicts, wanted to better serve its customers, said Jim Horsfield, ERS chief of
research, support and training.

It needed a way to define its customers and their needs, and the best way to match the
two, he said.

At first, mailing list management software seemed to be the answer, but it fell by the
wayside as ERS workers realized the complexity of the service’s needs.

The all-important customer data resided in disparate databases throughout ERS. To
maintain these files, ERS uses a variety of automated tools, including Lotus Development
Corp. spreadsheets, and the Inprise Corp. dBase and Microsoft Access databases.

“It soon became obvious that we needed a customer management solution,”
Horsfield said.

After ERS decided to embrace a customer management approach, the search was on for the
appropriate software.

After looking at a few packages in the $60,000 to $100,000 price range, Horsfield said,
he and his staff narrowed its search to three applications: Act from Symantec Corp. of
Cupertino, Calif., GoldMine from Goldmine Software Corp. of Pacific Palisades, Calif., and
TeleMagic from Sage U.S. Inc. of Dallas.

ERS ultimately chose TeleMagic because it was flexible, customizable and cost
less—$2,500 for a 10-concurrent-user license—than the others, he said.

“In a straight-out-of-the-box environment, GoldMine was probably the best one we
saw,” Horsfield said. “But it forces you to work the way it works. We needed
flexibility because we are not a business.”

GoldMine builds in fields for information such as account salesperson, which
doesn’t apply to the service, Horsfield said. The service preferred having the
ability to customize screens and databases, he said.

TeleMagic lets ERS develop different screens for different purposes, something that was
important to Horsfield when evaluating contact management packages. The software lets
analysts tailor which users see which screens—an important security feature,
Horsfield said.

Because ERS customer representatives have their own turfs, they must update and
maintain the databases from which they work, he said.

“The features in TeleMagic that allow you to customize the system have been very
important to us, so one individual can look at a piece of the whole effort,”
Horsfield said. “You don’t want to throw too much complexity at them, because
they are only really involved in maintaining a small part of the data.”

TeleMagic’s customer service management application runs under an IBM OS/2 Warp

Customer service employees access the database from Pentium and 486 PCs, which run
Microsoft Windows 95 and Windows 3.1. The software lets customer service representatives
track requests and responses from citizens.

Staff members have found new ways to use the software as their understanding of it has
grown, Horsfield said.

In one instance, staff analysts had to step in and pinch-hit as the branch changed from
one publication distribution contractor to another.

During the transition phase, the staff was left with a database of 60,000 customer
records from the previous contractor, including billing addresses, order dates and
inventory data.

“We had to make sense of that data in a hurry, because we were burdened with
dealing with the customer service issues that came up during the transition period,”
Horsfield said.

Using MergeMagic, which was included in the TeleMagic package, customer service merged
external database files with the TeleMagic application.

“Within about a week, I was able to develop two databases and the screens that go
with them, load the data from these two huge databases, and deal with the customer service
issues that came up,” he said.

The staff also used TeleMagic to organize a log for its information query hotline,
which worked well as a written log file, Horsfield said.

“We have programmed a number of radio buttons that allow us to classify the types
of calls we get,” said Bob Williams, an electronic dissemination specialist in
ERS’ Information Services Division.

“For example, if we get a call from the media, I add a record that lists the time
and data, contact and phone number, as well as notes about the call,” he said.
“I can also make a notation that I sent the caller a catalog, or I can refer the call
to another person in the department.”

Before TeleMagic, ERS manually maintained the log file in Corel WordPerfect. Because
the information query hotline receives hundreds of calls each week, producing a specific
report took quite a bit of time, Williams said.

TeleMagic’s complexity has forced ERS to roll out its applications slowly.

Once Horsfield’s staff successfully implements an app within its branch, Horsfield
expands use to the division and then the agency.

“Because it is such a powerful database management tool, it lends itself to a lot
of other database applications that would take a long time to develop using conventional
tools,” Horsfield said. “There are other applications on the drawing board, but
we’re taking it one step at a time.”  

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