Control Broker Technology: Enhanced Customer Service Through Direct Front-to-Back-End Integration

In today’s increasingly competitive business environment, organizations are finding themselves more concerned then ever with retaining customers through better customer service. The advent of the Web has rendered the need to improve customer service even more critical, since it allows customers to switch vendors with the click of the mouse. Many organizations have responded by heavily investing in customer relationship management (CRM) software and other customer-facing applications designed to improve customer service by creating a consistent experience for customers at all points of contact with the organization. Today’s organizations are extending these CRM systems to the Web to provide self-service anytime, anywhere access to company information.

However, while customer-facing systems provide excellent marketing, sales and customer service and support information, they currently do not inherently provide access to transactional information, such as that found in back-end applications, including enterprise resource planning (ERP), legacy applications or database systems. As a result, a customer calling a sales office with a CRM system might not be able to obtain up-to-the-minute product availability or order-status information. Access to this transactional information is even more critical for Web self-service applications, where customers are attempting to get the information they need solely through an automated system. Moreover, as the number of customer-facing applications increases, it becomes even more important to give all applications access to all of the same information, or the organization risks creating additional isolated "islands" of information that can actually have an adverse impact on customer service.

Integrating front- and back-office systems is the obvious solution. But, until recently, available integration technology did not allow the front-to-back systems to respond interactively to a customer’s request. Layers of integration middleware designed to facilitate process control and asynchronous request/reply communication, have the effect of slowing e-business response times to an acceptable level. A new class of software called control broker technology, however, is now bridging the gap. Control broker technology allows for a direct connection between front and back systems, thereby maximizing the performance, request/reply and interactivity of those systems by an order of magnitude. With this direct connection, a control broker allows any software application to control and/or access another application from any point within the enterprise. This improves customer service by allowing any one customer service representative (or Web self-service application) to respond interactively to any customer request involving any phase of customer service, including sales, returns, billing and shipping from a single location.

Mission-Critical Customer Service

It’s now clear that the long-term impact of customer retention has a dramatic effect on the bottom line. As a result, customer service is viewed as being more mission-critical than ever. For example, studies show that the cost of new customer acquisition is five to 10 times higher than keeping an existing customer happy, and CRM and other market-facing applications have gained increasing acceptance. AMR Research predicts the CRM market will keep growing at an annual rate of nearly 50 percent.

According to this same analyst firm, over 90 percent of businesses today have a Web site, yet most Web sites have static content (electronic brochures). Less than 15 percent of those have order status capability, less than five percent are enabled for Web-based transactions, and under one percent can offer realtime customer services. Even in this age of e-business, a surprising number of Global 2000 organizations are still unable to resolve issues through a single company contact. For example, most banks today handle routine transactions through automated teller machines, but, even the most integrated banks require service representatives to do some legwork and call the customer back. Solving this problem requires the integration of a wide range of company applications to create an environment with transparent visibility into all areas of the business that impact the customer.

An additional trend is to improve customer service by enabling customers (as well as partners and employees) to answer more of their own questions themselves through self-service Web applications. These systems furnish customers with instant access to support and information, while they are shopping and purchasing. But, as with CRM systems that support customer service representatives, these self-service applications are only as useful as the applications they are able to tie into. If these systems do not integrate with the full range of systems necessary to answer all customer questions, customers will still need to play phone tag and wait for a call back for some of their inquiries.

Integration Options

Unfortunately, back-office applications, such as ERP systems, legacy applications and databases, have not integrated with front-office applications in a way that was optimal for facilitating customer service. Until recently, the primary technology used to integrate applications within enterprises was enterprise application integration (EAI) technology. EAI solutions are most frequently based on asynchronous message brokering technology. These EAI systems may be set up in a hub and spoke configuration with a central message broker engine and adapters linking the message broker to each individual application connected to the system. The adapters manage the data flow between the application and the message broker, performing all the steps necessary to transform data into information, including content transformation, formatting and event-driven transformations. The central message broker contains the business rules that automatically route the message where it needs to go.

A message broker’s hub-and-spoke architecture offers the advantage of furnishing extremely flexible and extensible any-to-any integration. This flexibility is ideal for applications where organizations may want to integrate a wide range of applications. This integration architecture is designed to address the need to synchronize customer data across many different systems.

EAI systems, however, are less ideal for applications attempting to improve customer service, which requires integrating customer-facing front-end systems with back-end ERP and database systems. Because the message broker stores business rules centrally and the interactions between applications take place automatically according to a set of pre-defined instructions, systems integrated via EAIs are unable to respond interactively and in realtime to customer inquiries.

With customer-facing applications, response time is critical. In Web self-service applications, customers are only willing to wait a few seconds for a response – when responses take longer, customers are likely to abandon the transaction and look for a more responsive vendor. Similarly, in order for customer service personnel to provide excellent service, systems need fast response so as not to keep customers waiting. Yet, many traditional integration middleware architectures are unable to provide true realtime capabilities necessary for high volume, "zero-latency" e-business. With EAI, communications is a multi-step process. Message broker systems require as many as six data conversions, three to send the message to its destination (from the initial application to the message broker to the destination application) and three to get a response back. And, the message can go through as many as eight network hops – four to send the information to the back end system and four more to obtain the response. This architecture leads to relatively slow response rates – as many as several seconds. Moreover, response rates can slow even further as more users attempt to access the back office system at the same time.

Finally, for today’s integration projects, time-to-market is critical. Organizations risk falling behind their competition if they cannot improve customer service quickly through integration efforts and easily integrate additional systems as necessary. EAI systems require extensive integration efforts. Not only must an organization install adapters for each application, they must install a message broker, as well as middleware to connect the message broker to each application. These efforts translate into long lead times before an organization can make use of the finished system.

Control Brokers for Front-to-Back-End Integration

Now, new control broker technology has become available that specifically addresses the application integration needs of customer-facing applications, allowing organizations to better address their customer service requirements. Unlike EAI systems, which automate business rules and place them in a central location, control brokers work by allowing any application to directly control any other application over a secure channel. Users can work interactively with back-end systems, as if they were native modules of the front-end application. For example, if a user employed a Siebel CRM system to access information from a SAP R/3 system, the SAP functionality would look to the user as if it were part of the Siebel system, with the user accessing SAP through the Siebel user interface. This means that organizations can allow the application closest to the customer to interactively control what applications are accessed and how they’re accessed in order to immediately address a customer inquiry.

Control broker systems also allow for instant "zero latency" response. Because control brokers use one-to-one integration, without the need for any middleware, they require only two conversions between applications – one there and one back – compared with the six required for EAI systems. By reducing the number of network hops between systems, control brokers provide users with a much faster response time than EAI solutions. Best of all, response time does not degrade as more users attempt to access the back-end systems.

Control broker technology, also, leverages an organization’s existing IT technology, while simplifying and speeding the implementation effort. Some integration technologies can only link components that have been built within a single framework, such as EJB, COM or CORBA. Control brokers allow IT to integrate components that weren’t designed specifically to work together. As a result, IT can save time by leveraging the organizations’ existing IT systems.

Control Broker Benefits

With all of these capabilities, the control broker technology uniquely addresses the requirements of organizations wishing to improve customer service by integrating their front-end customer-facing systems with their back-office ERP and database tools. Control broker technology furnishes the extensive integration capabilities necessary to give self-service applications or customer service representatives access to all the information they need to answer any customer query. It furnishes interactive use of any integrated application, allowing the customer to control the flow of the interaction – rather than having to impose arbitrary rules on the interaction based on system requirements rather than customer requests. And, it allows organizations to respond to queries instantly.

In a marketplace where excellent customer service can still provide a competitive advantage, the control broker’s integration capabilities enable organizations to capitalize on this advantage by implementing solutions rapidly. And, because IT does not have to spend untold hours performing EAI configurations or developing extensions to the middleware or rewriting applications, they can focus on implementing new applications secure in the knowledge that interaction with other applications is guaranteed.

Part of a Complete Solution

Because of the complexity of e-business systems, no single integration tool offers all the integration capabilities necessary that every organization requires. Control brokers provide a solution for integrating customer-facing applications with back-end systems, an essential ingredient to providing a high level of customer support. These capabilities complement EAI systems, which provide any-to-any integration between a wide array of heterogeneous systems. Such EAI systems are particularly useful for streamlining the supply chain by integrating an organization with its suppliers, customers and partners. Together, EAI and control broker technology provide a complete solution for streamlining interactions with customers, partners and suppliers and for providing a high level of customer service.

Sean Pan is Senior Product Manager at Actional Corporation (Mountain View, Calif.).