2000 Aug 01
Yellow Brick Solutions PathWay Solution
David M. Raab
DM News
August, 2000

A modern customer management system has two large components: touchpoints that interact directly with customers, and a consolidated customer database that makes information available for decision-making. The touchpoint systems include transaction-intensive call centers and Web sites while the database is often a giant data warehouse with numerous reporting, analysis and modeling tools attached. Connecting these two big pieces is something much smaller: a real-time interaction manager that uses information and strategies from the database to guide interactions at the touchpoints.

But while it processes fewer transactions than the touchpoints and holds less data than the corporate warehouse, the interaction manager is still a complicated piece of work. It performs three key functions:

– linking to the touchpoints to receive information about transactions and send back its decisions

– linking to the customer database (and other corporate systems) to gather relevant background information

– building and executing the decision rules themselves

Each of these functions presents a substantial challenge. Linking to touchpoints is difficult because each touchpoint system has its own data structures and processing flows. It takes considerable work to translate these into a standard format that the interaction manager can process. Today this usually involves custom software development, although most interaction management vendors are building prepackaged interfaces for common touchpoint products. Linking to customer databases and other corporate resources also requires connecting to a Babel of inconsistent systems, with the added difficulty that resolving one touchpoint interaction often requires data from many corporate reference systems.

Still, the trickiest part of all may be building and executing the decision rules. Just how tricky depends on the nature of the rules a given system permits: some interaction managers limit each rule to one decision at a time, while others allow rules that execute a sequence of events. Some systems explicitly predefine each path, while others let multiple rules interact to choose the best response. Some rules scan for changes in behavior patterns, some adjust automatically to user reactions, some dynamically assemble custom replies. An ideal system would provide all these capabilities, as well as empowering non-technical users, simplifying control over rule deploy and deactivation, linking seamlessly with touchpoint-specific content, and providing real-time information on results.

Sadly, this ideal system does not yet exist. Each of today’s interaction managers meets a different subset of these requirements. So it is up to each buyer to decide which capabilities are most important and find the system with the closest match.

PathWay Solution (Yellow Brick Solutions, 919-653-2300, www.yellowbricksolutions.com) provides one intriguing mix of interaction management capabilities. PathWay is a brand new system, released just this month, but is descended from the pioneering Persimmon IT TargIT interaction manager released in September 1997 (and reviewed here in December, 1997).

The heart of PathWay is what the vendor calls “Visitant” technology, which stores pointers to information about each customer stored in one or more underlying databases. In addition to the usual data, such as demographics and transaction summaries, this information includes the customer’s current location in whatever multi-step marketing campaigns it belongs to. Calls to PathWay are embedded in touchpoint systems at specific locations, such as a slot on a Web page; when a customer reaches one of these locations, the touchpoint sends the Pathway the customer ID, a list of campaigns associated with that location, and perhaps other information such as replies to survey questions. PathWay then finds the customer’s Visitant, loads its data into memory, determines which messages are due in the specified campaigns, finds the related content–say, an HTML snippet for a Web page–in a content repository, and returns the content to the touchpoint for delivery. All this, of course, happens in the blink of an eye. The system then keeps the Visitant in active memory for a reasonable period, so it need not reread the database if there is another transaction from the same customer immediately after.

Although Visitant technology lets PathWay operate across different touchpoints, the campaigns themselves are what give marketers precise control over how each customer is treated. Each touchpoint location can call for one or more campaigns, and each customer can be assigned to one or more campaigns. This combination of choices offers the marketer tremendous flexibility. If all locations call the same campaign, then the customer will see the same message regardless of how he connects with the company–providing much-desired cross-touchpoint consistency. If each location calls a different campaign, then the message can be tailored to the specific situation. And if different customers are assigned to different campaigns, then the same touchpoint can give each customer a tailored experience. Furthermore, even a single campaign can include branches to deliver different messages based on customer data, current behavior, and other conditions. And since the Visitant keeps track of the customer’s location within each campaign path, PathWay can deliver a coherent sequence of messages across a disconnected set of contacts.

Naturally, PathWay includes a campaign design tool to construct these campaigns. This tool, Experience Manager, is reasonably easy to use, although the process of linking campaign steps to touchpoint-specific contents is rather cumbersome. Customers are assigned to campaigns using a segmentation tool, called Profiler, which also provides basic reporting. The vendor is working to allow use of other segmentation and campaign definition tools with its Visitants, although this hasn’t happened yet. It also plans to incorporate automated statistical modeling capabilities; at present, only precalculated model scores stored in the underlying customer database could be used within a campaign. Dynamic scoring would help PathWay address one of its current major weaknesses: the inability to return the best campaign when a customer qualifies for more than one. Currently, all campaigns at a given touchpoint location are ranked in a fixed priority scheme that is applied to all customers. Some method to find the best campaign for each individual customer is highly preferable.

PathWay is priced at about $150,000 for the full suite of components. It runs on Windows NT and Sun servers and uses the SQL Server and Oracle databases. Initial client installations are currently under way.

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David M. Raab is a Principal at Raab Associates Inc., a consultancy specializing in marketing technology and analytics. He can be reached at draab@raabassociates.com.

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