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Customer Relationship Management
September 2001

Managing Customer Information From Cradle To Grave


So you think you know your customers. When evaluating your customer information database, you may believe that it contains all the relevant information you need to know about your customers and prospects. You may have several thousand, perhaps million, customer names, along with addresses and other contact data. If you are a financial service organization, for instance, you probably know your customers' credit information along with their account numbers. You may also have information about their spending habits. All of this information is very valuable.

You should, however, ask yourself the following questions. Does your database system link various business units so that the system includes all customer-related information, such as visits to your Web site or calls for customer support? Does your database personalize communications, noting information about customer lifestyle choices, which can be used for future company offers?

Unfortunately, most customer information databases used by business-to-consumer and business-to-business sales and service organizations are nothing more than glorified ledger systems and address books. The exceptions to this are those few organizations ranked highest in terms of performance by their customers and by the stock market.

Knowing Your Customers From Cradle To Grave
Your database needs to help you present the right product to the right customer at the right time. It must provide comprehensive customer service information in a timely, knowledgeable, effective and satisfying manner. It should contribute to your company's service excellence and should help reduce your administrative marketing costs to a level below those of your competitors.

When using customer information as a strategic asset, an organization needs to be sensitive to the maturity of the relationship being built with each individual customer. If customers are to volunteer information about themselves, they need to understand and appreciate the benefits of doing so. Building the relationship with customers starts with setting customer expectations and continues when you repeatedly deliver on these expectations, building on the trust and empathy established at the start, with each new interaction.

Security information protects the customer and the company from abuse of the relationship, or even fraud. Personal likes and dislikes, even financial status information, enable an organization to make responsible sales and service propositions. Maintaining a record of such items as preferred payment mechanisms (e.g., credit card numbers) and dispatch instructions enables new orders to be confirmed more easily. Understanding customer behavior patterns ensures that company-initiated customer interactions take place at appropriate times through appropriate channels.

If you are to manage customer information successfully for the benefit of your customers and your organization, you need to ensure that the information is consistently accurate. Your organization needs to own the responsibility for maintaining accuracy, and customers need to know and understand how and why your organization uses it. Most important, not only should the information be consistent, but the means by which the information is collected from the customer must be equally consistent as well.

Emerging Global Trends Affect Customer Relationships
Is this a customer relationship or just a one-night stand? You only begin a relationship with prospects and customers once you engage them in dialog. Traditionally, this might be face-to-face or by phone. With the emerging global trends in technology, however, you need to include in your contact strategy the Web, e-mail, interactive TV and other emerging manifestations of these channels, such as the video kiosk and 3G cellular services. What you need to recognize is that customers demand choices and must be assured that whatever channel through which they choose to interact, at whatever time they prefer, the experience will be convenient and consistent time after time.

The implications from a technology and operational perspective are that you should have coherent CRM systems with a single interaction strategy for the "conversation" that follows, as well as a common database. CRM systems need to be set up to address future technologies, incorporating new ways to channel to customers. How well is your CRM system set up to participate in these future trends?

With globalization and the ability to work in a distributed network or virtual environment -- where it doesn't matter where the agent is or where the customer is -- your CRM system must be able to handle multiple channels and be equipped to work with voice and data. If you aren't sure whether your CRM system is fully globalized, consider the following questions:

  • Is your system able to support the emerging standards in data access, such as XML?
  • How well is your system able to work in a voice over IP environment?
  • Does your system embrace communications with customers through SMS messaging, rapid telephony, personal digital assistants, WAP telephony, video kiosks and other touch-point operations?

It's not just the phone or the Web anymore -- industry trends are moving fast, offering new touchpoints and channels for customers to choose from. Your CRM system should be ready to support these channels and, in turn, your customers.

Whatever the channel of choice, it's the information you collect that will enable you to identify your customers for future interactions after the initial contact. There are numerous techniques to simplify the process for both parties. Of course, there is the fundamental information: correct name, address, phone number and e-mail address. Additionally, there are other data to use in order to identify prospects and their requirements. For instance, if a prospect responds to a direct mail piece, include a specific reference number on the mailer that will later link the respondent with the specific offer. Or, if you are direct marketing through television or print, have a specific phone number, e-mail address or Web address for that campaign.

Try to establish a secure identity with the customer at the earliest opportunity, using his or her user name, password and personal reference information such as a memorable date, hobby or pet's name. This will quickly allow you to confirm the customer's identity during future interactions. By ensuring the customer consistency in information, across all channels, regardless of which touch point is used, you will have the makings of a customer relationship and not just a one-night stand.

Customer Relationship Management Or Customer Interaction Solutions?
Faced with the challenge of collecting, analyzing, maintaining and manipulating meaningful customer information for use across multiple channels for sales, service and credit control applications, many organizations leap to the panacea of technology and "the CRM system." Among the plethora of CRM packages available, many may not accommodate the core competencies expected and demanded of such systems.

Once your system is up and running and your staffing is in place, be sure to avoid the following common pitfalls:

Multiple iterations of data. Your CRM system should retain old data while entering new information.

Inconsistencies in building your CRM system. Your system should treat each customer and agent interaction identically by employing process-oriented business practices.

System inflexibility. Your CRM system must be seamless and able to collect new data easily.

A disjointed system. Your CRM system should maintain contact information continuity.

When selecting a CRM system, define your customer service strategy and your marketing strategy and refine your product set. Cosmetically, an application may look very attractive and, once developed and customized, may be very straightforward. However, if it does not integrate with your problem-tracking and resolution system, your accounting system or your phone system, it cannot incorporate the complex and security-conscious processes required to bring a new customer on stream. Nor can it manage sensitive and secure customer service interactions.

Some of the key questions to ask when evaluating the appropriateness and ability of a CRM application to provide real cradle-to-grave "relationship management" include:

  • Is it an open and flexible database that can be changed and enhanced to reflect the evolution of an organization's structure, size, products and services, and customers?
  • Does the CRM database fit your business model, or do you have to model your business to fit the package model?
  • Can you incorporate business processes into the application? Can you impose a discipline and consistency on short-term interactions such as phone calls or Web sessions so customer service representatives and customers are led through the most effective routes to achieving their respective objectives?
  • Can you build longer term workflows into the application to manage the duration of the customer relationship -- triggering and managing activities according to plan, circumstance or context, and guaranteeing fulfillment requirements and appropriate escalation procedures? Or, as with the database, does the package claim to provide all the processes your business will need so long as you fit your business to the package?
  • Do the database and processes enable personalized customer marketing and support strategies to be adopted and adhered to?
  • Does the package have a common presentation across media so that the contact center agent and the customer browsing the Web have a common view of information and follow common navigation through the system (albeit the customer may not have access to as much information as an employee)?
  • Does the package integrate with the latest information technology -- networks, databases, phone systems, WAP, content providers, financial and ERP systems?
  • Does the package embrace a knowledge engine so that an organization's intelligence about its products, services, policies and procedures can be incorporated into the application? Can you ensure that customers, regardless of channel, will receive the most up-to-date and consistent advice and that all employees will provide the same answers to the same questions if asked by a customer?
  • Does the package manage voice, e-mail, fax and Web interactions through a common and integrated architecture?
  • Does the package provide real-time and historic performance monitoring tools and report personnel's processes and business objectives, such as sales achieved?
  • Does the package record all customer contacts across all media types and, by so doing, provide you with a holistic view of your customer interactions and "touch points" with your organization?
  • Is the package customer- or technology-centric? Will it enable you to provide your customers with a choice of contact channel, while maintaining consistency across all channels to enable you to deliver service excellence?
  • Does the CRM application merely organize data, or does it provide the processes and information you need to acquire, support and retain profitable customers in a competitive environment?

Staying Competitive While Keeping Costs Down
Reducing costs is always an attractive goal to set and can occur when your system is set up to do more in less time with the same number of employees. Self-service, one-interaction service and rapid verification are three areas where costs can be contained.

With self-service capabilities, your CRM transactions are performed when you offer multiple channels such as interactive voice response through the phone, the television or the Web. The customer can solicit assistance without speaking to an agent.

When agents are empowered to handle the customer's entire list of requests in one interaction, it's a win-win for all. The customer benefits from not having to be transferred to another number or worse yet, to have to redial another number. The agent benefits by having the necessary systems and tools to complete the interaction and to go on to another customer.

By using rapid I.D. and verification of the caller, the agent is able to handle the customer's issues more effectively. With an improved database, your applications and processes are synchronized so more time can be spent handling the call rather than validating the caller's information.

Staffing: The Greatest Challenge For Future Customer Relationships
Perhaps the greatest challenge for the future of customer interactions will be for the employee and the employer, rather than for the customer. As call centers become contact centers and as customers expect to "interact" by video, e-mail and Web browsing in addition to voice, employers must recruit and retain versatile customer service representatives. Employees face technology trends and the need to do more than read a sales script. The new teams of customer service representatives must have a broader skill set.

Hopefully, the technology that supports sophisticated customer information databases will not completely replace the personal touch of managing customer relationships. Employers are challenged more than ever to find the right people to be trained to conduct video intakes, write customer letters and serve as agents for their organizations. As stated earlier, building the customer relationship starts with setting expectations and continues when you deliver again and again with each new interaction.

Roger Marsden is a consultant for Datapoint.

[ Return To The September 2001 Table Of Contents ]

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