2001 Feb 01
Interaction Management Frequently Asked Questions
David M. Raab
DM Review
February, 2001

– what do you mean by ‘interaction manager’? An interaction manager is a type of software designed to select responses to customer (or prospect) actions during a real-time interchange. What makes it special is that it integrates with different touchpoint systems, like Web sites and call centers, so the rules used to select the responses are consistent regardless of which system the customer is using to contact the company.

– how does an interaction manager differ from a regular customer relationship management (CRM) system like Siebel or Vantive, or a personalized Web site like BroadVision or ATG? Those systems can also use rules to respond to customer actions, and some even manage different channels from a single database and rule-base. What’s different is those systems only manage interactions through touchpoints they themselves control, while the interaction manager is a sort of “advisor” that many different touchpoint systems go to for help.

– can you name some well-known interaction management products? Probably the best known was RightPoint, which is now the Real Time module within E.piphany. Other products include Revenio, Yellow Brick Solutions, Manna FrontMind, and Harte-Hanks Allink Agent.

– so, how do these things work? Most work in roughly the same way. Users (mostly marketers) set up “campaigns” that promote different products or have different sequences of contacts for purposes like retention. Each campaign has rules that define who is eligible to receive it. When a customer appears at a touchpoint, the interaction manager looks at which campaigns that customer is eligible for and then picks the best campaign to execute. This feature of choosing among several campaigns is another key attribute of an interaction manager.

– why is choosing among multiple campaigns so important? Choosing among multiple campaigns is what lets the interaction manager respond to the current context rather than just blindly delivering messages specified in advance–messages that may no longer be relevant. In other words, it’s what makes the interaction manager “customer centric” rather than “campaign centric”.

– how does an interaction manager choose the best campaign? Figuring out the “best” campaign isn’t easy. Most systems let the marketer set up hierarchies that rank the available campaigns; the system then chooses the highest-ranked campaign for which the customer is qualified. Some systems can do a real-time value calculation that tries to determine the value of each campaign for the particular customer. Obviously this is better but harder to accomplish–more because of the difficulty of figuring out how to do the value calculation than because of any technical problems with the execution itself.

– isn’t delivering decisions across separate touchpoint systems an integration nightmare? It can be. Most vendors have prebuilt “connectors” that integrate with selected CRM or Web site systems, although usually each vendor has just a few of these in place. In general, the implementer has to somehow embed a call to the interaction manager’s API within the touchpoint system–say via a tag on an HTML page or a branch in a telemarketing script. This notifies the interaction manager about the current interaction and passes on the ID of the customer involved as well as the current context. The interaction manager then runs through its rules and data to pick the response, and sends it back to the touchpoint to be delivered. This last step might involving writing to the touchpoint’s own API, and also may involve some type of integration with a content manager to make sure the right message is actually displayed. Obviously this is all complicated–which is why having a prebuilt connector is so helpful.

– so are you saying I shouldn’t buy a system if it doesn’t have a connector to my existing touchpoints? No I’m not. These systems are designed to be easy to connect with touchpoint systems, so while it’s still complicated it’s not like your forcing the system to do something it wasn’t designed for. Generally the vendors are quite happy to build new connectors once they have a live client who needs one–obviously it’s in the vendor’s interest to have as many connectors as possible. Having the right connectors should be one of your evaluation critieria, but there are lots of other differences among these systems, so you wouldn’t want to select only on that one issue.

– what other differences are there? Probably the biggest difference is whether a system is designed mostly to return one-shot product recommendations, or to execute multi-step campaigns that deliver a sequence of related messages over time. Products including E.piphany/RightPoint, Manna and Black Pearl are mostly in the recommendation category; all have integrated predictive modeling systems to make recommendations simpler. Products including Yellow Brick, Revenio and Verbind are in the multi-step category; they allow much more elaborate campaign logic. Another big difference is the nature of the touchpoint integration: most systems require you to embed an API call into the touchpoint system, but Harte-Hanks Allink Agent can actually scan a stream of transactions and pick out the interesting ones without any changes to the touchpoint itself. The disadvantage to that approach is the responses are not delivered through the touchpoints; instead, you send a separate email or outbound phone call. (Actually, Agent can be directly integrated with a touchpoint, but then you’re back in the usual integration process.)

– this sounds awfully complicated. Can’t I just use the interaction management capabilities built into my touchpoint systems? Yes you can, and most people probably will. But it’s unlikely you will have just one touchpoint system throughout your entire organization, so if you truly want to ensure that customers are treated consistently across all touchpoints, relying on their internal interaction management capabilities won’t do. You also might find you want interaction management capabilities–like multi-step campaigns or advanced recommendation engines–that your touchpoint doesn’t offer. Whether getting a more comprehensive or powerful solution is worth the added investment in a specialized interaction manager is a business decision you’ll have to make. The good news is that interaction management software lowers the cost of that investment dramatically. The bad news is there’s still no easy way to estimate the value.

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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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