A few weeks ago, I had a discussion with fellow Enterprise Irregular Bob Warfield, who is the EVP of Products for a company called Helpstream. I have to admit, when I saw Bob's rather cogent commentaries on the Enterprise Irregulars site, I became curious as to what he did and what the Helpstream company dealio was. I asked him and we set up a demo and a conversation between me, Bob, and Anthony Nemelka, the President and CEO of Helpstream and a long time industry veteran. In fact, Tony and I turned out to have a fair amount of friends in common due to his E.piphany and PeopleSoft days in particular.
But that isn't why I'm writing this.
First an apology. I meant to write this entry several weeks ago but my now memorable to anyone but me accident occurred and a few other things and this became the backburner due to any writing being backburner.
While still recuperating a bit and writing is still a little bit harder than it should be, I'm chomping at the bit to talk about Helpstream, because with a few caveats - the big one that I haven't seen it in a production environment - this is one of the best crafted CRM 2.0 applications I've seen to date. Period. End of sentence and definitive statement.
Why Say Such A Thing?
There are certain core concepts that define CRM 2.0 that are difficult to get arms around, because they turn the historic paradigms on their heads. One of the most significant, subject of myriads of articles, blog entries, books and even academic papers is the idea of what I think is somewhat cavalierly called "co-creation of value." The premise of business co-creation of value is that the customer is engaged in a series of relationships and interactions with a company that provides some result that is measurably mutually beneficial to each party concerned. For the company it could be purchases and re-purchases. For the customer it could be the value of participation leading to enhanced reputation with his/her peers or validation or even some monetary reward. There is a wide range of possibilities of what customer "value" is. More on that subject in a later tome.
The other defining concept for CRM 2.0 is what makes it differ from plain ol' Web 2.0. Look at it this way. Traditional CRM is/was transactional and involved the provision of company value by managing how customers transacted business with a company to the benefit of the company - and, incidentally, the customer. This was done through the effective management and use of business rules, business processes, technology and some cultural commitments to making the life of the customer better so that he or she would purchase "stuff" and be committed to doing that in the future. Web 2.0 was essentially a consumer side or personal way of using internet technologies to communicate with like people or to garner massive amounts of information in real time or nearly so without the interference of any party outside the initiator of the interaction - or with the use of other parties by the choice of the initiator of the interaction. But the key was that the direction of the interaction was typically controlled by the initiator of the communication. That could be a personal, consumer or even corporate interaction with someone or something else. But it had no particular relation to business rules, processes or the enterprise. It wasn't "designed" for that. In fact, if you look at the classic Tim O'Reilly - no relation to Bill - thank god - definition in 2005 of Web 2.0 here's what you get:
"Web 2.0 is the network as platform, spanning all connected devices; Web 2.0 applications are those that make the most of the intrinsic advantages of that platform: delivering software as a continually-updated service that gets better the more people use it, consuming and remixing data from multiple sources, including individual users, while providing their own data and services in a form that allows remixing by others, creating network effects through an "architecture of participation," and going beyond the page metaphor of Web 1.0 to deliver rich user experiences."
In the interests of fair play in definitions O'Reilly tried a business revision in 2006 which went like this:
"Web 2.0 is the business revolution in the computer industry caused by the move to the internet as platform, and an attempt to understand the rules for success on that new platform. Chief among those rules is this: Build applications that harness network effects to get better the more people use them."
What makes CRM 2.0 so important and compelling a proposition is that it provides the best of both worlds if done well - though, because it is a nascent concept, it isn't done that well or even that consciously yet. That means that not only are the tools, products, services and experiences provided for the customer to sculpt the kind of interactions they want with the company - but there is a major benefit for the company which uses the processes, algorithms, business rules, workflow and technologies to facilitate some sort of response to those customer results to get an optimal return from the customer - through feedback or new product development, for example - with the customer helping the company solve or create something that the company needs solved or created.
While this is something that, on the surface, makes complete sense and is certainly a step that companies should take - the bulk of the practitioners who have an interest in CRM or in social media or social networks don't currently see things that way. On the vendor side, which is my concern for this particular entry, the features, functions and characteristics necessary to define a CRM 2.0 application or service hasn't been particularly well done. In fact in the case of the vendors, while most of them are now starting to talk the 2.0 talk, they aren't exactly tearing up the catwalks with any fundamental changes to their applications that indicate they do get it. I would say on the major vendor side, the notable exceptions to this lack of change - meaning those that are trying to walk the walk are Oracle, SAP, salesforce.com, and, most pleasantly surprisingly Sage with SalesLogix - who have done a HUGE makeover that has done them a world of good. Several others are in the midst of making seriously credible efforts that could well succeed - including RightNow who I would put on the cusp and Microsoft - who still have a ways to go but are going in the right direction - albeit too slowly.
But I have to say, the purest CRM 2.0 I've seen in the customer service world - that third pillar or at this point, perhaps silo is a better term, of traditional CRM - is Helpstream who have actually done something that I find, at least from an applications standpoint, to be a real standout and a paradigmatic CRM 2.0 application service (I call it an application service because its on demand).
Social Customer Interaction + Company Rules = Helpstream
The two screenshots below are pretty much a visual definition of CRM 2.0. They are two of the most salient of Helpstream's strengths. The ability to incorporate the community into the discussion around solutions to customer service problems on the one hand and then the ability to parse that information/discussion and apply pre-configured business rules and workflow that will then trigger actions back at the corporate level based on those community discussions.
Imagine this scenario:
A customer goes online to report a problem to a Helpstream enabled system. His issue goes into a cue. A rep for the company using Helpstream logs in and sees the problem in an unclaimed area in the queue and realizes that he may be able to help solve it. The CSR (that's customer service representative for those who are unitiated into the world of whatever you want to call contact centers these days) then drags and drops the issue into his area and assigns it to himself.
This is where it gets interesting.
Not only can the agent plumb the knowledgebase for answers to the service problems, but they can also check out and find "support tickets like this one" from the internal customer support system which might suggest an answer or go outside the firewall and search Web and blog matches for the customer service questions. That's a real boon. I know when I have a "customer service" issue that I don't want to deal with an agent for - a crashing Vista program or not being able to uninstall Google Chrome for example, I search the web and get the benefit of the external forums. Helpstream uses this advantage to its advantage and in context.
Users can access the service capabilities that Helpstream provides through a self-service portal and can not only create a ticket for their own problem but then do that multi-location search themselves. But there is another avenue that is there for the agents and the users - and that is online communities.
The Social Features: Customer/Agent Commmunity Collaboration
This is where Helpstream really starts to leap forward - though even with what I've already described this is a very good app service. As a customer of Helpstream, you can white label an online community accessible through the self-service portal or through the agent screens where agents and customers can discuss customer issues, solve problems and comment or rank the solutions, if that's what you care to do. It is truly collaborative and provides what is a new kind of customer affinity - a way for customers to participate in the life of the company and solve the problems as defacto agents - a true crowdsourcing capability that isn't offered by anyone as of yet that I know of - though if there is anyone I'm certain they'll let me know - because they have in the past. But what makes this an elegantly executed CRM 2.0 application - not just a social addition to CRM is that the discussion and feedback are tied to analytics, workflow and business rules (see the screenshot on the left above).
At the simplest level, Helpstream automatically captures valuable information about problems your customers experience with your products and alerts the right people in your company. This is done because you can customize the workflow and create custom business rules that are based on the customer discussions going on in the communities.
But the communities themselves are not pale representations. These are deep full fledged and highly flexible communities. You can create an open community that any customer can join or what they call a "gated community" which can be limited to specific types of customers and agents or singularly individual ones. These can be open and long term - or event driven.
Profiles can not only be personal and set up by the user - but CRM related data (history, transactions, purchases, ticket resolutions and discussion threads) can be linked to the profile. According to Helpstream, "a profile can track competencies, interests, knowledge, role, and anything else you'd like to customize into the system. They help match participants to appropriate content and they help personalize each experience." How well that works in a production environment remains to be seen since I haven't seen it.
Participation in the community is scored on the amount of participation and the ratings applied to the participation by the other members. That means you can find expertise that you would have otherwise not found.
I can attest to that method working, hallelujah.
Many years ago (13), when I had to hire Lotus Notes professionals for significant projects (full time hires) I used to troll the user groups on Usenet for Notes. I would read the discussions and the comments and responses to the discussions and if I thought that the Notes consultant was really smart, I would contact him or her and eventually hire them. It was a win- win for all concerned. I was able to recruit some of the best Notes pros out there to the company I worked for at the time. Well worth it. Helpstream does this using business rules and workflow alerts and notifications. A really smart move.
Another "yeah, baby!" for Helpstream is that they integrate well with CRM. Not only they claim it but they also have a partnership with Oracle and they integrate with salesforce.com to facilitate the claims. If SAP is smart, they'll get on the stick and start talking to Helpstream right away.
The subscription pricing is fair. There is a free version which is somewhat useful though it doesn't allow you to customize any business rules and comes with a very few canned rules so it limits the utility of it all, but is still a good demonstrable overview of what the product can do. The pricing is done by the portal and then the user/agent, For example, the enterprise level of the community portal is $259.00 per month - again, that's for a portal - not a user. The user pricing for the enterprise service desk edition - which then means the CSR/agent pricing - is $79.00. All in all, reasonable.
They are also run by industry veterans - guys like Anthony Nemelka, a long time enterprise applications veteran - who crossed paths with me when he was at PeopleSoft and fellow Enterprise Irregular Bob Warfield who is a VP on the Helpstream premises.
Look, this is a company that simply is one of those who gets the way the world is going and then built something that works for it. They are young but they are ready and hungry and have something of substance here. I'm going to see what I can do to get them to show me a real live environment but I really really like how they think and how they engineer - and that's a helluva start.