BPM for the responsive enterprise

BPM allows companies to pay attention to individual customers and increases the value of simple products

We live in a global economy, where continuous incremental change is the name of the game. Gone are the days when companies could hope to prosper by just doing the same things and making the same products over and over. Successful products and services are quickly copied; they become commodities, and the prices companies can charge for them are continually ratcheted down.

The best way to earn profits in this economy is for companies to differentiate themselves and their products to respond to ever-changing customer needs. Using business proc­ess management (BPM), a company can pay attention to individual customers and increase the value of even the simplest products by wrapping them in a blanket of value-added services that respond precisely to customers' needs.

Companies can use BPM technology to leverage existing systems infrastructure and become much more attentive to customer needs. I was recently the CIO of a national distribution company that sold janitorial supplies and food-service disposables (stuff like floor wax, paper cups and plastic forks). We differentiated ourselves by layering a BPM system on top of the existing EDI and Web-based systems that customers used to place their orders. This system monitored incoming orders and alerted customer service people whenever there was a potential problem or a service opportunity.

Here's how it worked. There's always a common set of things that every order has to have, such as a ship-to address, items, quantities and prices, but there is also a handful of things that are different for each customer. The BPM system allowed customer service reps to define what a good order looked like for each customer they covered. And reps had the power to change those order definitions without a programmer having to hard-code that logic into the order proc­essing systems.

So, as different customers came on or as their requirements changed, customer service people could update their own criteria for good orders. Then the BPM system screened the orders; if orders were good, they just flowed on through. But if an order didn't meet requirements, the system trapped it, attached it to an e-mail and sent it to the rep responsible for the company that sent the order. The customer service rep either fixed the order or, if it was really strange, contacted the customer and handled the order manually all the way through.

When you think about it, that's what customer service is all about. Customers noticed the attention we gave them. They often paid a bit more for our products than what our competitors charged because they liked the personal attention we provided; it made our company easier to work with and worth more to them.

Using BPM, we greatly increased the productivity of our customer service people by automating the handling of routine orders, and we focused their time and energy on dealing with the orders that contained potential problems. This increased the value they delivered, both to the customer and to our company, by orders of magnitude.

The BPM system was installed quickly, and it delivered a great return on investment. It enabled us to stand out in a crowded market and gave our salespeople something to talk about besides price when customers asked why they should do business with us instead of with someone else.