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May 1999



I tend to harp on definitions. My reason for doing so is simple: in an industry growing as rapidly as the call center industry, a standard, accurate definition of its products, solutions and services is paramount. And since accurate definitions lead to clear understanding of a product's capabilities, their benefits to your organization become obvious. A misunderstood product, or product benefits, can represent a calamity waiting to happen. As is reflected in the metaphorical interpretations of the myths and legends of many cultures, names and definitions (correct or incorrect) carry great power. To utter a demon's true name, for example, gave a magician the power to command it, albeit at great risk, for while the creature did the magician's bidding, it hated its servitude and constantly sought its freedom.

The task of naming and defining what a product is, what it does, what it can do and what it can't, helps you to start solving your business need; it also becomes quite complicated amidst the whirligig of call-center solutions-related terms. Think about it -- Even a short list of our industry's terms includes: e-commerce, customer relationship management, customer service and support, telesales and telemarketing, marketing automation, personalization technologies, virtual call centers, customer interaction management, logging and monitoring, e-mail management and auto-response, knowledge bases, software development kits for the creation and customization of just about anything you'd like, Web self-service engines, Web interaction software, Web text chat, Internet telephony, e-commerce transaction servers, computer-telephony integration (CTI), middleware, industrial computers, automatic call distributors (ACDs), predictive dialers, blended dialers, voice/data switches, Internet ACDs, open telephony servers, private branch exchanges (PBXs), PC-PBXs, headsets, "Internet" headsets, CTI headsets, skills-based routing, intelligent call routing, help desk software, workforce management software, call recording and accounting packages….

Recently, I was alarmed to learn (from attending numerous trade shows and having spoken with a good many vendors and end users) that use of the term CRM is already becoming adulterated enough to warrant qualification. My warning light really went off when I spoke with Scott McCorkle, vice president of Corepoint's product group (www.corepoint.com - an IBM spin-off, which, from its inception was CRM-focused), who used the term "true CRM" in conversation. Having written and thought so much about CRM in the past few months, I stopped him with a flashy phrase I like to break out every now and again: "Huh?" I asked, "What does that mean? You either implement 'customer relationship management' strategies, processes and technologies or you don't. 'True CRM' is an oxymoron."

With a polite, pleased grin (acknowledging the opening I provided), Mr. McCorkle launched into an explanation of Corepoint's CRM philosophy:

  1. The Access Channel -- Whether it's Web, telephone, e-mail, fax, in-person…s´┐Żance…the important thing is that customers can reach your company whenever and however they choose (which means they expect to reach a knowledgeable representative even if they're calling at 3 a.m. on Friday the 13th.)
  2. Process Automation -- What business process is initiated when the customer calls regarding a support issue? What if, instead of calling, they e-mail the support issue, or have just spent 35 minutes browsing your support site's FAQ and product information pages and have escalated the self-service interaction to an e-mail, chat or voice callback. In the first two instances, the business process should be identical - the agent (live or automated) must first find out who the caller is, the nature of the problem and then diagnose and solve it as quickly as possible. In the third example, the "caller" probably didn't find the answer needed, and, given the time spent in self-service, is probably a trifle annoyed - that's all information the agent needs to tailor his/her tone and service delivery, which contribute/detract from the positive relationship you've tasked the agents with developing. Asking them to upsell and cross-sell without a complete customer profile is like asking them to traverse a minefield without a detector - it's dangerous for them (higher turnover) and your business (increased customer dissatisfaction and/or attrition.)
  3. Data Integration With Legacy And/Or Other Databases -- Since many of the CRM and CTI middleware products have only been around (and reliable) for a couple years now (at most), it's fairly safe to say you have a lot of customer information tied up in mainframes, older database systems and even in old-fashioned paperwork. You've probably also captured a good deal of product-specific information in older systems that is crying out to be imported into a knowledge base. Your agents, field sales/service folks, marketing managers, etc., all need to be able to access those data - some more than others. But if Jim in customer service can access a sales database record without bothering Patricia, the rep for that account, then the customer receives faster service. And when Patricia goes on a sales call to that client the following week, she can see that her customer had a problem, spoke with Jim (who resolved the issue quickly), can mention that fact to the client (demonstrating knowledge and concern, thus enhancing the relationship) and can even, by consulting the accounting department's records, mention that his or her last quarterly payment is overdue and is there any way we can help out? (so long as we get paid.)
  4. Relationship Management -- As I've stated in previous columns, the word "relationship" implies an "emotional" connection - a person can't have a relationship with a machine (at least not yet). Good sales/service relationships are usually based on trust, and while a machine can't inspire that feeling, it can streamline access to the information the sales/service rep needs to initiate that relationship. Decision support technology, knowledge bases, marketing automation tools, not to mention good training and a thorough grounding in the product being serviced or sold, are also part of the CRM solution. This category also includes forecasting, business analysis tools, like data mining products, that help you make accurate business decisions based on trend analysis.

I happen to agree with Mr. McCorkle's definition -- I, and some of my colleagues, have argued similar points in different ways in previous issues of this magazine. CRM cannot be equated with any single-point business function like customer service, sales, marketing, ERP, nor with any point product like skills-based routing, Web self-service or customer interaction management software, for example.

To be sure, these products and business functions (and others) can, when taken together, contribute to a company's overall efforts to focus on the management of customer relationships. The impetus driving a CRM strategy often begins within a specific department, but unless a groundswell carries the change throughout the enterprise, there's little hope of the corporation placing the customer where he/she belongs - at the center of all business activities. And I don't mean that in a high-level, fuzzy, "feel-good" way. The only reason you, as a business, would consider the CRM "paradigm shift" is because you can make more money by retaining and/or acquiring (increasingly fickle) customers that you might have otherwise lost. If you disagree with this approach, then ignore me and all the other media and vendor hype surrounding CRM.

CRM can, and perhaps should, be viewed as a puzzle. I played a really annoying game with two of my cousins (ages 8 and 10) over the Easter holiday. In the game, each player starts with the same geometric shapes - triangles of several different sizes, a square/diamond and a parallelogram. A card is then drawn upon. Each card displays a blocky figure - a stylized bunny, sailing ship, train, etc. The players are then required to mimic the drawing on the card by organizing the plastic shapes before them - a modernized puzzle.

The game was annoying for two reasons: my cousins were better at it than I was, and it was hard. Trial-and-error was the only process by which a solution could be reached, but there were two factors working in our favor. One, we had a definable goal, so we had to rearrange the pieces only until the correct solution was found. And two, the pieces were defined, not protean.

The problem in the call center/business world is that you sometimes have neither a defined goal nor defined pieces. Without those definitions, the ultimate solution is, of course, malleable. And while you can craft any shape you desire, you'll probably spend a lot of time squabbling over the bits and bytes before any forward progress is achieved.

CRM starts with your customers. If you're presented with a piece of the puzzle that claims to be CRM, but in reality supplies only a part of the solution, don't be fooled. Define your customers and define their needs. Next, define how you want to meet those needs/satisfy your customers. Then, define the business processes necessary to make that goal real - then find some technology that will do what you want. If the path to CRM starts in the call center, that's fine. If it starts with your field sales/service force or marketing department, that's okay, too. There are no hard and fast rules, really, except one: name the demon and keep it under control.

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