• March 31, 2010
  • By Daniel Chalef, chief executive officer, KnowledgeTree

Let the Customers In

Most online shoppers are used to the idea of viewing their own accounts on the sites of large retailers and exerting some control over the information stored there. With the drive toward expanded self-service, many savvy internet users can even be miffed if there is no visibility into their accounts, information or purchase history. Customers view access to their account as more than a convenience - they see it as an essential element of doing business with the retailer.

Online retailers have recognized the value of building relationships with customers through their accounts. Megaretailer Amazon.com has made extensive use of purchase history to make personalized recommendations for books and consumer goods. Other organizations, such as health insurance providers, offer online portals with claim history, forms and other ways for subscribers to interact with the company.

Now expand that concept of account interaction to a B2B setting where the customers, partners and vendors of a business engage in online relationships. It's already happening in manufacturing, where visibility into operations and processes is granted to supply chain partners, vendors and auditors. Paperless purchasing, billing and payments are all the norm.

But what about online document sharing? And of course we don't mean emailing PDFs back and forth for review and approval. We mean allowing a customer to have read and write access to source documents within a centralized repository. For that to occur, an organization needs an enterprise content management (ECM) system that permits secure, remote access from anywhere.

Software as a service (SaaS) architectures are ideal for this type of collaboration around documents and their associated business processes. And thanks to the explosive growth of SaaS applications for ERP, CRM and other mission critical functions, there is far less apprehension about storing corporate information in a hosted environment.

SaaS ECM is gaining increased acceptance as business decision makers get more comfortable about storing documents in off-site repositories. With that shift in attitude and growing emphasis on transparency, collaboration and customer feedback, many organizations are using SaaS applications as a way to actively engage customers and build relationships around document-centric business processes.

Engaging customers through a document management system has several benefits:

  • Improved control of document versions - An ECM system will have version control features that ensure the most current version of the document is housed in the repository. This saves time and reduces the confusion that often comes from emailing documents and reconciling multiple sets of changes.
  • Enhanced project coordination - In many industries where customers are also strategic partners, sharing documents efficiently is essential to achieving business objectives. Workflows, alerts and discussion threads are all excellent ways to bring a project team together.
  • Improved document security - With fine grained controls over document security based on roles and permissions, organizations can make certain documents available online to customers and stakeholders without the fear of unauthorized access. Control at the document level makes sure only certain people see selected documents.
  • Collaboration across geographic environments - One of the main reasons for implementing a SaaS-based ECM system is the ability to access it from anywhere without the need for complex VPN connections. This inevitably facilitates the collaboration efforts of distributed teams.

Online document collaboration strengthens relationships and enables greater strategic partnering with third-parties. As a result, business processes become more efficient - ultimately contributing to enhanced productivity and profitability.

Luckily, these gains aren't restricted to large organizations or multinational enterprises. Small and medium businesses can take advantage of affordable, SaaS document management systems to achieve the same benefits and build relationships with customers, partners and vendors. SaaS ECM has effectively leveled the playing field by providing enterprise-class functionality for an affordable monthly fee.

There are numerous examples where SaaS-based document management can be used by SMBs to interact with customers, partners and vendors:

  • Insurance - Claims forms can be filled in online and submitted directly to a document management system where they enter a workflow for adjudication.
  • Legal - Clients can review and edit contracts, briefs and affidavits and make changes collaboratively with counsel. Documents can be made immutable when complete to prevent further changes.
  • Creative Services - Public relations, advertising and marketing firms can share deliverables with clients from a secure repository where revisions are carefully tracked.
  • Pharmaceutical - Documents subject to regulatory control can be shared with auditors to ensure proper version control and electronic signatures are maintained.

A SaaS-based ECM application makes it easy to quickly allow trusted parties to have controlled access to certain documents. It saves the time and headache of sending documents through email and eliminates confusion over multiple versions. Using an ECM system with customers and partners can add new efficiencies to document-centric processes while also actively building productive relationships.


About the author

Daniel Chalef (daniel@knowledgetree.com) is the chief executive officer at KnowledgeTree. His 14-year career in technology spans senior management, business analysis, and engineering positions at software, Internet, and telecommunications companies. Daniel has regular blogposts on content management and open-source software, and you can also follow him on Twitter: @danielchalef.


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