Most companies today understand that customer communications are integral to successful customer relationship management programs. Many of these communications are initiated from field organizations. Letters, proposals, quotations and marketing materials are often created, assembled and delivered to customers from branch offices.Historically, technological limitations have prevented companies from effectively controlling the content and integration of these communications with mainstream fulfillment processes. This has led to higher costs, poorer communications and reduced customer satisfaction.

Interactive documents are certainly not new. Sales representatives, agents, customer service representatives (CSR) and other branch office employees have been using desktop word processing tools for years to create communications for customers. While this environment provides total flexibility for users, it has resulted in a number of challenges and issues for companies. We typically see these scenarios:

* Word processors and other point solutions are used by employees across the organization to create proposals, letters, policies, contracts and myriad other point-of-need documents for customers. Though providing flexibility for the user, these tools create an uncontrolled and unstructured environment that is not integrated with back-end systems, are expensive to support, and can result in customer satisfaction and legal issues.

* Companies attempt to impose control on the word processing environment by developing and maintaining templates and macros that restrict what parts of documents users can edit. To prevent errors and support all the different types of documents that customer-facing employees need to create, thousands of templates may be created, each only allowing minor changes by the user. This solution provides little flexibility for users to meet customer's demands, and companies become strapped with thousands of template permutations to maintain. Business expansion and support for different languages multiply the problem exponentially.

* Another common approach to support field-generated communications, especially for correspondence and reporting, is the use of data forms to drive completion of documents. Data is entered into forms and used to generate a custom document for review. This method works well when there is limited data to input. However, it does not easily support requirements for design, formatting or unstructured content. When these are required, this approach is non-intuitive for most users and generally requires many rounds of entering data into the form to get the finished document to look right. The time it takes to resolve word wrap, font and spacing issues is non-productive.

* Documents created in the field are often assembled and mailed from the branch office because the process is not integrated with corporate fulfillment and production systems.

Often, field systems cannot be integrated with central production systems due to document fidelity issues or other system incompatibility. As a result, customer-facing employees spend too much time on fulfillment and customized mailings, such as sending out marketing materials or invitations for an event. This is a non-productive use of time and presents no opportunity for postal savings from bulk mailings and no certainty that records of the communications are archived. Further, it is expensive to keep an inventory of attachments (brochures, prospectuses and other branch office documents), and it is disruptive when the required documents are not available.

Not only are these scenarios problematic and non-productive for users, they present many problems for the business, including more calls to customer service and bad PR for the company when customers receive communications with mistakes and inaccurate content; frustrated customers when CSRs don't have access to the most current customer documents, and poor customer experience when inconsistent communications are sent from different departments.

Other challenges include the use of expensive IT resources for the ongoing development and maintenance of user templates and expensive printing, mailing and fulfillment costs resulting from decentralized, manual processes.


An intelligent, interactive document solution that is integrated with the company's centralized corporate systems and document production environment will provide intelligent master templates that include rules and logic to support different lines of business, many different permutations of the completed document, and templates that simplify workflow based on the user's role. The solution should also guide users through the template completion process using pull-down selection lists and check boxes, interview pages and context-sensitive help; and track all user changes to data, content and design to speed approval and ensure compliance.

Without a common platform that seamlessly supports high-volume, on-demand and interactive document applications, organizations can become trapped in a manual, error-prone and inefficient environment that results in great expense, both in terms of customer retention and the bottom line.

Davis Marksbury is president and CEO of Exstream Software LLC, Lexington, Ky.

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