Improving Customer Engagement on IBM i
June 28, 2017 Alex Woodie
A new survey points to a growing desire among IBM i shops to offer more customer engagement channels to their customers. However, the cost of implementing these changes and a lack of technical skills present considerable barriers, according to SoftLanding Systems, which conducted the poll.
IT resources are a limited asset at most organizations. They must choose carefully when and where to deploy these resources for maximum affect. At the same time, there is usually a long list of “wants” from various lines of business, and perhaps a shorter list of more critical “needs.” It’s up to the CIO and other senior leaders to balance the wants and needs against the available resources.
These wants and needs are in flux when it comes to customer engagement, according to a recent survey of 43 IBM i shops conducted by SoftLanding Systems, the New Hampshire-based subsidiary of Unicom Global. SoftLanding conducted the survey at last month’s COMMON conference in Orlando, Florida, and the International i-Power 2017 held two weeks ago in the U.K.
SoftLanding’s survey found that that 91 percent of the respondents identified “greater choice of channels, i.e. Web and mobile self-service” as the initiative that’s “most important for improving customer engagement.”
That was followed by “using analytics to understand customer behavior and preferences” (62 percent) in second place, and in a three-way tie for third at 57 percent, enabling customers to switch channels seamlessly, providing a single view of all customer activities, and personalizing marketing and customer service.
The above numbers reflect what businesses want. When you consider what IT initiatives they’re actually planning to spend money on over the next three years to turn into a reality, the numbers shift a bit. This is to be expected.
SoftLanding says the top customer engagement priorities for IBM i shops are moving from paper to digital communications and implementing data analytics to improve customer insights, both of which nabbed 43 percent of the total. Personalizing customer communications was second at 32 percent, followed by creating a single customer view (commonly called “360-degree customer view”) at 19 percent).
So, what’s the big holdup preventing IBM i shops from moving forward? The SoftLanding survey points to cost as the primary barrier to implementation, cited by 54 percent of the survey-takers, followed by shortages of IBM i skills at 41 percent. Also of concern are the skills required to integrate data from multiple sources, the business risk of modifying core applications, and the limited integration between front- and back-office systems, which ranged in scores from 31 percent to 39 percent.
SoftLanding Operations Manager Jim Fisher says the survey shows that IBM i shops understand that the balance of power has shifted to the customer.
“They know they have to invest in improving the customer experience if they want to thrive and there’s a real appetite to bring in new digital technology to drive better engagement, as the research suggests,” Fisher says in a press release. “The findings also underline that IBM i shops are committed to staying with the platform as they take on these new challenges.”
That last comment reinforces other research conducted by HelpSystems. In its 2017 IBM i Marketplace Survey, the IBM i software giant reported that only about 20 percent of IBM i shops are planning to move some or all applications to other platforms, compared to 25 percent who are looking to grow the IBM i footprint, and 45 percent who see no change.
While SoftLanding’s survey points to a greater desire for IBM i shops to engage with customers across Web and mobile channels, the majority of shops are not taking action there. According to HelpSystems’ survey, 62 percent of companies report having no mobile computing initiative. Fewer than 7 percent report that their primary application interfaces are Web or mobile-based. Nearly 60 percent say their primary applications have 5250 green-screen interfaces, while about 27 percent say they also have some Web interfaces.
Clearly there are many barriers to be overcome if IBM i shops are going to meet their goals of providing customers with Web- and mobile-based self-service capabilities en masse. There is no chance that companies are going to expose 5250 green screens directly to their customers (please pardon the cringe-worthy thought). You will always need somebody to drive that 5250 screen for your customer.
None of this should come as shocking news, Fisher says. “Many of the barriers that respondents pointed to, such as costs and the technical and skills challenges, are to be expected,” he says. “Our advice to anyone who is concerned about the cost and risks attached to embracing new customer engagement initiatives is to not immediately assume they’ll have to rip up or radically change their existing applications. They should look for non-invasive solutions that build on what they already have – for example by taking existing output such as bills, statements, policy documents and promotional material and repurposing it for Web, mobile and social channels – without requiring any changes to underlying applications.”
As SoftLanding points out, there are many ways to modernize an IBM i application. You can attack the user interfaces. You can target printed output. Or you can even upgrade the database itself, which is arguably a better place to start (and an area that SoftLanding is getting into). Unfortunately, the longer that IBM i shops wait to get started, the farther back they will fall.