Tuesday, March 11, 2008

eglue Links Data to Improve Customer Interactions

Let me tell you a story.

For years, United Parcel Service refused to invest in the tracking systems and other technologies that made Federal Express a preferred carrier for many small package shippers. It wasn’t that the people at UPS were stupid: to the contrary, they had built such incredibly efficient manual systems that they could never see how automated systems would generate enough added value to cover their cost. Then, finally, some studies came out the other way. Overnight, UPS expanded its IT department from 300 people to 3,000 people (these may not be the exact numbers). Today, UPS technology is every bit as good as its rivals’ and the company is more dominant in its industry than ever.

The point of this story—well, one point anyway—is that innovations which look sensible to outsiders often don’t get adopted because they don’t add enough value to an already well-run organization. (I could take this a step further to suggest that once the added value does exceed costs, a “tipping point” is reached and adoption rates will soar. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen this in reality. Nice theory, though.)

This brings us to eglue, which offers “real time interaction management” (my term, not theirs): that is, it helps call center agents, Web sites and other customer-facing systems to offer the right treatment at each point during an interaction. The concept has been around for years and has consistently demonstrated substantial value. But adoption rates have been perplexingly low.

We’ll get back to adoption rates later, although I should probably note right here that eglue has doubled its business for each of the past three years. First, let’s take a closer look at the product itself.

To repeat, the basic function of eglue is making recommendations during real time interactions. Specifically, the system adds this capability to existing applications with a minimum of integration effort. Indeed, being “minimally invasive” (their term) is a major selling point, and does address one of the significant barriers to adopting interaction management systems. Eglue can use standard database queries or Web services calls to capture interaction data. But its special approach is what it calls “GUI monitoring”—reading data from the user interface without any deeper connection to the underlying systems. Back in the day, we used to call this “screen scraping”, although I assume eglue’s approach is much more sophisticated.

As eglue captures information about an on-going interaction, it applies rules and scoring models to decide what to recommend. These rules are set up by business users, taking advantage of data connections prepared in advance by technical staff. This is as it should be: business users should not need IT assistance to make day-to-day rule changes.

On the other hand, a sophisticated business environment involves lots of possible business rules, and business users only have so much time or capacity to understand all the interconnections. Eglue is a bit limited here: unlike some other interaction management systems, it does not automatically generate recommended rules or update its scoring models as data is received.

This may or may not be a weakness. How much automation makes sense is a topic of heated debate among people who care about such things. User-generated rules are more reliable than unsupervised automation, but they also take more effort and can’t react immediately to changes in customer behavior. I personally feel eglue’s heavy reliance on rules is a disadvantage, though a minor one. eglue does provide a number of prebuilt applications for specific tasks, so clients need not build their own rules from scratch.

What impressed me more about eglue was that its rules can take into account not only the customer’s own behavior, both during and before the interaction, but also the local context (e.g., the current workload and wait times at the call center) and the individual agent on the other end of the phone. Thus, agents with a history of doing well at selling a particular product are provided more recommendations for that product. Or the system could restrict recommendations for complex products to experienced agents who are capable of handling them. eglue rules can also alert supervisors about relationships between agents and interactions. For example, it might tell a supervisor when a high value customer is talking to an inexperienced agent, so she can listen and intervene if necessary.

The interface for presenting the recommendations is also quite appealing. Recommendations appear as pop-ups on the user’s screen, which makes them stand out nicely. More important, they provide a useful range of information: the recommendation itself, selling points (which can be tailored to the customer and agent), a mechanism to capture feedback (was the recommended offer presented to the customer? Did she accept or reject it?), and links to additional information such as product features. There is an option to copy information into another application—for example, saving the effort to type a customer’s name or account information into an order processing system. As anyone who has had to repeat their phone number three times during the course of a simple transaction can attest—and that would be all of us—that feature alone is worth the price of admission. The pop-up can also show the business rule that triggered a recommendation and the data that rule is using.

As each interaction progresses, eglue automatically captures information about the offers it has recommended and customer response. This information can be used in reports, applied to model development, and added to customer profiles to guide future recommendations. It can also be fed back into other corporate systems.

The price for all this is not insignificant. Eglue costs about $1,000 to $1,200 per seat, depending on the details. However, this is probably in line with competitors like Chordiant, Pegasystems, and Portrait Software. eglue targets call centers with 250 to 300 seats; indeed, its 30+ clients are all Fortune 1000 firms. Its largest installation has 20,000 seats. The company’s “GUI monitoring” approach to integration and prebuilt applications allow it to complete an implementation in a relatively speedy 8 to 12 weeks.

This brings us back, in admittedly roundabout fashion, to the original question: why don’t more companies use this technology? The benefits are well documented—one eglue case study showed a 27% increase in revenue per call at Key Bank, and every other vendor has similar stories. The cost is reasonable and implementation gets easier all the time. But although eglue and its competitors have survived and grown on a small scale, this class of software is still far from ubiquitous.

My usual theory is lack of interest by call center managers: they don’t see revenue generation as their first priority, even though they may be expected to do some of it. But eglue and its competitors can be used for training, compliance and other applications that are closer to a call center manager’s heart. There is always the issue of data integration, but that keeps getting easier as newer technologies are deployed, and it doesn’t take much data to generate effective recommendations. Another theory, echoing the UPS story, is that existing call center applications have enough built-in capabilities to make investment in a specialized recommendation system uneconomic. I’m guessing that answer may be the right one.

But I’ll leave the last word to Hovav Lapidot, eglue’s Vice President of Product Marketing and a six-year company veteran. His explanation was that the move to overseas outsourced call centers over the past decade reflected a narrow focus on cost reduction. Neither the corporate managers doing the outsourcing nor the vendors competing on price were willing to pay more for the revenue-generation capabilities of interaction management systems. But Lapidot says this has been changing: some companies are bringing work back from overseas in the face of customer unhappiness, and managers are showing more interest in the potential value of inbound interactions.

The ultimate impact of interaction management software is to create a better experience for customers like you and me. So let’s all hope he’s right.

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