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LESSON - Enterprise Business Intelligence Beyond the Enterprise: Customer-Facing Business Intelligence

By Jake Freivald, Vice President of Marketing, Information Builders

A few decades ago, gas stations transformed themselves by supplying “self-service” pumps and employing just one person to staff a station and collect money from customers. It was a win-win situation: The stations reduced payroll costs and earned higher profits even as customers paid lower fuel prices. Stations that offered self-service also gained market share over those that didn’t. It was the difference between coddling people, which is expensive and slow, and empowering people, which is cheaper and faster.

There’s an opportunity today to achieve similar results with customer-facing business intelligence. We’re so used to thinking of BI as an inward-facing activity that we don’t think about providing it to our customers, partners, and suppliers. When we do give them information, it’s frequently in hardcopy reports and fancy brochures, or maybe spreadsheets and flat files. It feels like we’re giving them what they want—like we’re coddling them—but in fact they could get more value by accessing the information that they want, in the way they want it, directly.

If you think about the kinds of information you collect already, you’ll see a lot of things that you could share with third parties to your mutual benefit. Product information, package delivery status, and billing details come to mind—they already form the basis of self-service applications for large companies—but there are other large, untapped information resources inside your enterprise. Sometimes those resources can even be exploited for profit, creating revenue-generating BI, of all things.

There’s nothing conceptually difficult about customer-facing or revenue-generating BI. You have to access enterprise data sources and make their information easily accessible to external end users. But you can’t give these users complex tools; you have to focus on highly parameterized BI applications, the sort of thing people can tackle without training. They have to see everything in context. Ideally, users should be able to find the information through keyword searches, simple forms, and basic Web-interface capabilities such as drop-down boxes and radio buttons. The old usability paradigms (drag and drop, slice and dice) have to give way to simpler user experiences that are still powerful enough to provide any permutation of the data that your users want.

And of course you’ll need to scale securely. With any luck, there are a lot more people outside your company than inside who can use your information. Many of our clients report tens or hundreds of thousands of users, and the largest applications run into the millions. You still need to manage who can ask for what. That’s not something you can take for granted in a BI platform.

At Information Builders, our effort to create large-scale, pervasive BI applications has led to the recognition that these applications are ideally suited to support customer-facing initiatives. Here are some examples of Web-FOCUS applications that reach beyond the enterprise:

  • A premier distributor of paperback and hardcover books built a self-service reporting environment that “provides publishers with information that they can’t get anywhere else in the industry as quickly,” according to their CFO. That information includes which titles are selling, where, and in what quantities. The CFO told Information Builders, “This puts us in a completely different light with our partners.”
  • A major automobile manufacturer built a warranty management application that allows each dealer in its network to monitor how much its warranty performance varies from the average performance of others within the same region. More than 14,000 dealers rely on the system, including all the company’s dealerships worldwide. The application has been deployed in 14 languages and more are planned to support the Asia-Pacific markets. It helps the manufacturer instantly identify numbers that are out of line while creating an environment of healthy competition between dealers. The application—and the behavior changes it caused—have saved the manufacturer $40–60 million per year based on better warranty repairs.
  • Canada’s leading processor of credit card and related transactions, Moneris Solutions, generates revenue by repurposing information it would have collected anyway. Like most credit card processors, Moneris charges a small percentage of each sale for electronically processing and authorizing credit card purchases. In addition, the company built a Web FOCUS-based application called Merchant Direct that allows merchants to view their Visa and MasterCard transaction data online, including consolidated statements and reports and a customized view of card payment activity. This is incredibly valuable to its customers, who are willing to pay a fee to gain insight into the buying patterns these transactions provide. With more than 1.7 billion transactions annually and more than 300,000 customers, the application needed to be highly scalable and extremely easy to use.
  • One client, the nation’s leading professional employer organization (PEO), manages more than 100,000 workers—professionals who specialize in everything from accounting to administrative support—for thousands of clients and tens of thousands of work sites. This allows its clients to avoid the arduous tasks in recruiting, hiring, and paying employees directly. A large component of this involves information sharing: providing access to self-service, client facing reports for payroll, benefits, and employee information.
  • In effect, the company acts as a full-service human resources department for small- and midsize businesses, offering payroll and taxation processing, workforce management, benefits administration, and workers’ compensation. By providing staffing and full reporting and analysis capabilities, smaller firms maximize their productivity by leveraging the same type of formal HR processes as their larger counterparts without maintaining their own staff or expensive infrastructure.
  • Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE), one of the largest vertically integrated electricity and gas companies in the UK, is enhancing customer service while cutting support costs with a self-service portal built on Web FOCUS. The application is helping the company’s customers reduce their energy consumption expenses—a benefit to both the individual company and to the environment. Its Business Energy Centre (BEC) Web site provides 420,000 corporate customers with online retrieval of “day plus one” billing and usage data, which is dynamically updated every 24 hours. It provides accurate, detailed intelligence that helps organizations identify usage peaks and troughs, spot trends, and take prompt action to reduce consumption levels. The information provided helps companies cut costs and meet environmental sustainability targets through smarter, more conservative gas and electricity usage.
  • As part of its commitment to the public’s right to know about health-code compliance, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene allows access to inspection records for any of its 20,000 restaurants. Providing the information online helped eliminate paper-based processes, reduce the time to look up inspection results (it originally could take up to four days), and reach thousands more people with information related to their potential health risks. Perhaps more importantly, the restaurants felt pressure knowing their inspection results were easy to find, and inspection scores rose. This application can be seen online at
Customer-facing BI apps need to be scalable: Many of our clients report tens or hundreds of thousands of users, and the largest applications run into the millions.

You get the idea: The possibilities are mind boggling. Many of the best applications can be made with data you already collect. It’s just a matter of looking for ways to empower your customers and partners—looking for the win-win situation that only self-service applications can provide.

For a free white paper on this topic, click here and choose the title “The World’s Best Business Intelligence Applications: Customer-Facing, Revenue-Generating BI.”

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