What do you mean by "interaction manager?" An interaction manager is a type of software designed to select responses to customer (or prospect) actions during a real-time interchange. It integrates with different touchpoint systems, such as Web sites and call centers, so the rules used to select the responses are consistent regardless of which system the customer is using to contact the company.

How does an interaction manager differ from a regular customer relationship management (CRM) system? Those systems can also use rules to respond to customer actions, and some even manage different channels from a single database and rule base. But while those systems only manage interactions through touchpoints they control, the interaction manager is a sort of "advisor" to which many different touchpoint systems go for help.

How do interaction management products work? Users (mostly marketers) set up campaigns that promote different products or have different sequences of contacts for purposes such as retention. Each campaign has rules that define who is eligible to receive it. When a customer appears at a touchpoint, the interaction manager determines which campaigns that customer is eligible for and then picks the best campaign to execute. This feature of choosing between several campaigns is another key attribute of an interaction manager.

Why is choosing between multiple campaigns so important? Choosing between multiple campaigns lets the interaction manager respond to the current context rather than just blindly delivering messages specified in advance ­ messages that may no longer be relevant. It's what makes the interaction manager customer-centric rather than campaign-centric.

How does an interaction manager choose the best campaign? Most systems let the marketer develop hierarchies for the available campaigns; the system then chooses the highest-ranked campaign for which the customer is qualified. Some systems can do a real-time value calculation that attempts to determine the value of each campaign for the particular customer. Obviously this is better; but this is more difficult to accomplish because of the difficulty of figuring out how to do the value calculation, not because of any technical problems with the execution itself.

Isn't delivering decisions across separate touchpoint systems an integration nightmare? It can be. Most vendors have prebuilt connectors that integrate with selected CRM or Web site systems, although usually each vendor has just a few of these in place. In general, the implementor has to somehow embed a call to the interaction manager's application programming interface (API) within the touchpoint system ­ perhaps via a tag on an HTML page or a branch in a telemarketing script. This notifies the interaction manager about the current interaction and passes on the ID of the customer involved as well as the current context. The interaction manager then runs through its rules and data to pick the response and sends it back to the touchpoint to be delivered. This last step might involve writing to the touchpoint's own API and may involve some type of integration with a content manager to make sure the right message is actually displayed. Obviously this is all complicated ­ which is why having a prebuilt connector is so helpful.

Should you avoid buying a system if it doesn't have a connector to your existing touchpoints? No, certainly not. These systems are designed to connect easily with touchpoint systems; so, while it's still complicated, it's not as though you're forcing the system to do something it wasn't designed to do. It's in the vendor's interest to have as many connectors as possible. Having the right connectors should be one of your evaluation criteria.

What other differences are there? Probably the biggest difference is whether a system is designed mostly to return one-shot product recommendations or to execute multistep campaigns that deliver a sequence of related messages over time. Products including E.piphany/ RightPoint, Manna and Black Pearl are mostly in the recommendation category; all have integrated predictive modeling systems to make recommendations simpler. Products including Yellow Brick, Revenio and Verbind are in the multistep category; they allow much more elaborate campaign logic. Another big difference is the nature of the touchpoint integration. Most systems require you to embed an API call into the touchpoint system, but Harte-Hanks Allink Agent can actually scan a stream of transactions and pick out the interesting ones without any changes to the touchpoint itself. The disadvantage to this ap-proach is that the responses are not delivered through the touchpoints. Instead, they require that you send a separate e-mail or place an outbound phone call.

Can't I just use the interaction management capabilities built into my touchpoint systems? Yes, and most people probably will. However, it's unlikely you will have just one touchpoint system throughout your entire organization. If you truly want to ensure that customers are treated consistently across all touchpoints, relying on their internal interaction management capabilities won't do. You also might find you want interaction management capabilities ­ such as multistep campaigns or advanced recommendation engines ­ that your touchpoint doesn't offer. Whether or not getting a more comprehensive or powerful solution is worth the added investment in a specialized interaction manager is a business decision you'll have to make. The good news is that interaction management software lowers the cost of that investment dramatically. The bad news is there's still no easy way to estimate the value.

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