There are two basic routes to true multi-channel integration.
1) Toss aside what you have and use a suite of applications from a single software vendor.
2) Integrate your existing, or best-of-breed applications on a single platform.
The single-vendor option might seem more convenient—the all-important technical aspects of integrating multiple channels have been taken care of for you. But we don’t live in a one-size-fits-all world, and you may find that the Web or the retail/POS modules in these all-encompassing suites leave something to be desired.
The best-of-breed route has its drawbacks as well. For one thing, it can be expensive: The demands of maintaining multiple integrated applications from different vendors requires substantial IT staff. You’ll need one person per application, plus at least one more for managing the integration platform. You’ll also have to deal with maintaining the system yourself–that means managing upgrades for each of the components in a timely fashion. Some of these may entail changes in the fundamental business logic of the system.
The IPR Option
Let’s say you’ve chosen the best-of-breed route. You’ll probably want to make use of an integration platform like ChainBuilder from Bostech (www.bostechcorp.com), which offers a Java-based solution that can create a services oriented architecture (SOA), even from legacy applications that are not inherently SOA systems.
But if you have a warehouse-management system, you might also want to consider an IPR (integration, processing, and reporting) platform. This alternative is especially appealing for direct commerce companies where the Internet is quickly overtaking the call center as the driving force for growth. As more of the IT budget goes to supporting an increasingly robust e-commerce platform, it is tempting to consider adapting the Website to support a call center interface on special Web pages.
An IPR platform serves two essential functions: order processing, and maintaining the primary enterprise databases for customers, inventory, and orders. It can also serve as a reporting platform–particularly if, in addition to managing transaction-oriented databases, it is also used as a data warehouse or data mart repository. Finally, it can function as a business- rules repository for managing how the related nodes of the business operate (retail, POS, WMS).
There are a few prime candidates for an IPR platform. The first is BusinessFlow from Mainstreet Commerce (mainstreetcommerce.com), built on Microsoft’s .NET Services-oriented architecture. The system actually includes a comprehensive set of order entry, e-commerce, and fulfillment functions–hence its inherent suitability for handling order processing, one of the three basics of IPR.
But its greatest strength lies in its ability to serve as an integration- and business-rules platform that can support complex policies across all sales channels. It can also define all of your product offerings at any level of granularity, from company-wide down to a specific configuration for a specific product.
For reporting, BusinessFlow’s job system allows a non-developer to write SQL-like queries across every object such as sales, orders, payments, customers, and items without knowing any SQL. Any user can generate a report with granular transaction-level detail.
The second IPR candidate is Jagged Peak (www.jaggedpeak.com), whose Edge system can also serve as a full-fledged order entry application. It excels at managing orders from a wide variety of sources and for a number of purposes, including Internet e-commerce, EDI or call center product orders, demand for marketing material distribution, digital asset download requests, warranty registration, customer club member registration, sales incentive program management, and resource requests for participation in collaborative repair processes or in-store demo programs, among others.
Edge, a J2EE Java-based system with a browser interface, draws information from multiple business process portals using APIs, so you don’t have to manage a dozen different systems to manage a dozen different types of demand. Its demand-rules module sets and controls demand for catalog items, allowing you to establish the parameters for each item, including user accessibility; determining quantities that can be ordered; setting prices; applying discounts; and running promotions. Affiliate features allow you to support commissions and credit sales to appropriate sources—for instance, associated Websites, call centers, marketing partners, and/or specific campaigns).
A logistics management module lets you manage a network of warehouses and their performance rules. You create and administer customer shipping rules and the logic for routing orders to providers and/or warehouses anywhere in the world. This enables you to optimize inventory, manage shipping costs, and improve delivery performance.
Edge also has a content management module that allows you to dynamically create, edit, and publish Web pages and content, all of which can then be reviewed before final posting on live sites.
Reporting can be managed from the system’s SQL/Server or Oracle databases, or via a third-party reporting tool that can be integrated into Edge and updated as often as you like.
Both BusinessFlow and Edge have customer communication and CRM functionality that can be used for both inbound and outbound customer communications. This is an often-neglected area that an IPR platform can help to unify and manage.
On the inventory side, a good IPR platform should be able to handle some content management functions, as do both of these solutions. This enables you to eliminate redundant data entry, and specify business rules for what data appears with which items under what circumstances.
One of the bigger challenges of multichannel integration involves management of such issues as customer loyalty clubs, gift management, serialized gift certificates and cards, and gift registries. These, too, can be set up via the business rules in a robust IPR application, which can not only drive how they are managed in the store, online, or in the call center, but also keep track of the data and activities these types of programs generate.
One of the most difficult aspects of managing any “best of breed” systems environment is coping with the often-conflicting logic of each of the constituent applications. With an IPR platform as a central repository, an “orchestra conductor,” and a “traffic cop,” this bedeviling challenge can be somewhat less daunting.
Ernie Schell is director of Ventnor, NJ-based consultancy Marketing Systems Analysis.