EDMOND—Philadelphia Church of God offices around the world are operating a new contact management system called Cedar. Cedar was deployed on May 9 after about two and a half years and represents a significant upgrade in the Church’s ability to automatically apply policies, to protect privacy, and to provide quality customer service.
Without a contact management system, most of the Church’s headquarters departments and regional offices would be unable to function. Call center operators would be unable to add new callers’ contact information. Mail fulfillment staff would be unable to cut and group literature requests, track subscriptions or print order information. TheTrumpet.com and PCOG.org would be unable to offer the latest pcg literature or to link to literature offered on The Key of David or Trumpet Daily television programs. Publishing staff would be unable to access literature inventory numbers and input the specifications of each product to be shipped. Business staff members would be unable to accurately manage donations. Imperial Academy and Herbert W. Armstrong College administrators would struggle with student registration, issuing school supplies and broadcasting online classes. Without custom software built to the unique specifications of a Church operating a special kind of work, dozens of staff members would find it impossible to accomplish their tasks.
For about 15 years, that system has been a program called Scepter. The Church’s growth and changes in technology have made updating it an overdue necessity.
Information Services department manager Patrick Hogan said he and developer Paulette Corey have been working on Cedar since department head Andrew Locher assigned the project around early 2014. They spent the next two years building a replacement for an old system that was difficult to change, used different technology than other Church applications, crashed frequently, and needed improved features.
At the end of the process, Cedar underwent several months of beta testing, during which longtime users received training on the new system and offered feedback.
“It affects every office: Editorial, Publishing, Accounting, Fulfillment, the field ministry, the regional directors,” Hogan said. “It’s hard to find an area of the Work that isn’t in some way affected. You have to make sure you’re talking to everyone and getting their input.”
When the trial period ended, Cedar now contained 34,000 lines of code and was ready for launch.
The task of transforming, reprocessing and transferring 1.7 million contacts, 7 million requests for literature and other services, 2 million addresses and 1.3 million subscriptions to Cedar from the old system began on May 6 and took the entire weekend. By noon on Monday, May 9, life had returned to normal for dozens of pcg employees who depend on the database every working day. The disruption to entering Key of David literature requests over the weekend was synchronized over the following week.
Hogan and Corey built Cedar to match the programming language, operating system, database software and other technology the department typically uses. The system preserves data by separating different types of data and retaining a record of status updates, for example. It also incorporates additional business rules that have been developed since Scepter was deployed and creates a platform on which the department can build a long list of future feature requests.
Cedar strikes a balance between automation and human involvement. Hogan said he structured the database around automation in particular, involving human decisions only when necessary. Once call center operators log a batch of literature requests, Cedar automatically produces downloadable files such as labels, packing slips and correspondence course certificates. First-time callers automatically receive a subscription to the Philadelphia Trumpet newsmagazine. Subscription renewal forms generate automatically.
Cedar also standardizes business rules and policies used by regional offices worldwide. Callers from developing countries must pass the first Herbert W. Armstrong Bible Correspondence Course test before ordering literature so they know just what it is they are requesting. Certain products are shipped out faster than others. The amount of time a caller must wait between orders is on a per-product basis. Prisoners must write and send a letter to receive literature. Only Church members can subscribe to the Philadelphian newsletter. Cedar keeps track of these and other exceptions and handles requests accordingly so individual users need not waste time parsing technicalities.
Hogan said the department designed Cedar to offer increased automation because “we wanted to make sure there was a fair and consistent application of policies around the world.” The software also relieves the burden of enforcing the business rules from operators or other staffers and builds it automatically into the system.
Cedar increases protections on the privacy of every person stored in the database. Increased automation also enables it to give different staff members different levels of access: enough to do their jobs, and nothing more.
In the case of the call center, for example, operators answering a call formerly had to look up the caller’s name and status and based on that information decide on the spot whether to log the request. This required additional training and supervisor involvement and could lead to uncomfortable conversations.
For special situations requiring review, the software automatically routes the necessary information to the appropriate person, another instance of the balance between automation and human participation. With Cedar, operators simply log the request and let the system handle the rest.
“Call center operators don’t even get the opportunity to accidentally make a wrong decision,” Hogan said. “They can be polite and cheerful, take a call, and be on their way.”
Cedar will improve pcg customer service, Hogan said. New subscribers and donors will receive automatically generated welcome letters. The subscription letter explains how often to expect their pcg publications to arrive in the mail. This is especially helpful, Hogan said, during the spring and fall holy day seasons, when the Royal Vision and Philadelphia Trumpet magazines have a gap. Readers won’t need to call in confused or upset to find out the reason for the abnormally long wait. When a subscription nears its conclusion, a renewal letter is automatically sent out instead of a renewal sleeve accompanying the magazine. If a caller requests too much literature at one time or makes requests too frequently, Cedar automatically includes a polite letter from the mail department explaining the limits for individual orders. Hogan said more personal contact through the variety of timely letters should endear callers and readers to the Work.
“I hope we have improved everyone’s experience,” Hogan said. “That’s really the goal: make a new-and-improved thing that streamlines the operations of the Work.”
“Anything that didn’t fit into ‘Let’s replace Scepter’ went into phase two,” Hogan said. Now that Cedar is live after thousands of hours spent in development, Information Services now has more work to do in order for it to grow into an increasingly more useful system for the staff members who use it. One coming upgrade is increased flexibility for entering literature orders. Usually a caller states the title of the publication, then the address, and lastly his or her name, but Cedar currently requires the name first. The update will allow operators to enter the information in the order the caller provides it, without having to interrupt. Hogan said he also wants to add upgrades for field ministers, including organized and accurate information about prospective members, field congregations, hall rental costs, and more.
Hogan said pcg staff members were patient and encouraging during the transition to Cedar. He said that migrating to Cedar could have caused quite a few issues, but that the transition was quite smooth and the system is now operating better than he could have hoped. He said, “I’m sure that’s due to everyone giving input and praying about it.”