Adopting a customer-centered marketing strategy sounds simple. Focusing on the customers’ needs, values and expectations, and subsequently providing value for the customers is a goal to which many companies aspire. But too few deliver. The key to the successful implementation of a customer-centered strategy comes with the realization that technology alone cannot solve any problem without the people and processes in place to make it actionable. The reality is that most companies don’t have an integrated infrastructure – technology, people and processes – in place to support such an initiative.
Nearly every company focuses on the technology component of the infrastructure and assigns the people and process portions to a lesser level of importance. Technology rarely prevents a customer-centered initiative from being successful. More often than not, human behavior and organizational processes are the inhibitors to success.
So how can you ensure success with such an initiative?
Start by asking yourself the following questions:
- Have your employees proven themselves willing to change the way they work, if necessary, to provide better service to your customers?
- Is your entire company well trained in the art of customer service and is everyone customer-focused – regardless of how frequently they come in contact with customers?
- Are your business processes designed with your customers in mind?
- Do you have all the data about your customers that you need?
- Are your systems capable of supporting your goals and objectives relative to your customers’ expectations?
If you have found that you can’t answer “yes” to each of these questions, you are not alone. Nevertheless, you’ve taken the first step in recognizing and accepting your company’s shortfall relative to customer relationship management (CRM) capabilities. To get back on track, keep in mind the three dimensions of CRM: technology, human behavior, and organizational processes.
If you are going to be effective in implementing a CRM strategy, you will need many different data sets – not just about your customers and their purchase patterns, but also about your products and services, your prospective customers, your competitors, the market, the economy and perhaps the regulatory environment. Next, quality technical capabilities are a must. To be most effective, you will need to be able to gather, move and mine the data for relevant information. You must integrate your systems to the degree that data sharing is dynamic according to your business needs.
Many companies have transactional systems, such as point-of-sale, telemarketing/telesales or customer service, but few have built in the degree of integration of the data necessary to truly assist the organization in meeting the customers’ needs.
Ask yourself, how does the information collected at these points of customer contact make its way throughout your company? Can product and marketing managers, market research, database marketing, and senior executives access this information at the appropriate summary or detail level to allow them to make sound business decisions?
Finally, most data has some value in and of itself, but it is the combination of the data, the system capability and the know-how that provides the actionable information needed to create a competitive advantage in the marketplace.
For example, let’s assume you know which customers buy which products or services you offer. Useful information to have, but ask yourself a few more questions:
- Do you know why your customers buy from you? Can you find prospective customers just like your current customers?
- Can you match your essential products and services against those of your competitors? What are the strengths and weaknesses? Are you selling against them?
- Who are future purchasers of your products and services? What do they look like?
- Do you know why your customers are not buying from your competitors?
- Will changes in the economy influence your customers’ ability to purchase your products and services? How?
- Will changing demographics have an impact on your business? How?
- If your product or service is regulated, will pending changes in legislation affect your profitability? How?
If pressed, many companies can answer these questions on some level. However, the complete information is often spread throughout the organization on computer disks, in file drawers and in employees’ heads, which can take weeks or months to assemble. With such disparate and decentralized information in an organization, decisions are made without a complete understanding of the big picture.
Of course, reliable, consistent data and systems must be in place to maintain the integrity and credibility of the information. Without that, the ability to make sound decisions based on the information becomes suspect, and therefore should not be used.
Technology is the easy part of this equation. Systems and technology can provide virtually any capability that is needed to manage the data and information.
The tricky part comes with understanding the information and applying it to everyday situations. Most often, the creation of actionable information is not “rule-based” (generated solely by a computer) but rather, “expert-based” (requiring human intervention for interpretation).
Human behavior is critical to the successful implementation of a CRM strategy. The biggest challenge companies usually face is putting an enterprise-wide focus on the customer. Outside of the sales or customer service areas, most employees are not directly exposed to customers. These individuals make vital decisions affecting customers. Everyone in the organization – from the CEO down to the line-worker – must be focused on the fact that the customers sign the paychecks.
This type of focus is difficult to achieve since individuals within an organization are usually focused on completing the task at hand and often have difficulty in seeing how their duties link to the big picture: satisfied customers. The good news is that overcoming human behavior challenges starts with a simple act – communication.
Communicating the change to all employees is an important – but often overlooked – part of any corporate initiative. Here are a few ways to keep your employees interested, involved and more adaptable to the many changes required to implement a total CRM strategy successfully:
- Get the individuals who will be affected by the change engaged from the very beginning of the project. Tell them about the initiative, what the organization is expecting to accomplish from the change, how the customers will be affected and – most importantly – how the change will affect their work. Ask for their input into the project, not only at the beginning but also throughout the project.
- Communicate regularly with appropriate messages and provide an easy way for employees to offer comments. You will have multiple audiences – from senior executives to telemarketers – within your organization. Each target audience will likely need a different slant and frequency of information.
- Prepare for and provide sufficient training, giving your employees the skill sets necessary for the new systems and processes you will be implementing. Use this as an opportunity to re-assess communications skills and provide additional training in this area, if needed.
While these three points will not solve all of your change challenges, they will help smooth the transition from merely having a CRM strategy to delivering on your customers’ needs and expectations.
Organizations are often their own worst enemies when it comes to implementing a CRM strategy.
In some organizations, the culture and processes are so ingrained that it is difficult to facilitate change – even if you have adequately addressed issues of technology and human behavior. Moreover, the mindset that permeates the organization’s processes is often based on technology limitations that were in effect at the time a specific process or procedure was developed.
What has been done in the past is often no longer the best guide for what to do in the future. Organizations must prove themselves adaptable with processes and procedures that are designed with the customers in mind.
Managing the total customer relationship is dependent upon how well these three dimensions – technology, human behavior, and organizational process – are developed, managed and integrated. To be successful, equal attention must be given to all three.
A version of this article originally written for Direct magazine and appeared March 1, 2000, in print. (Direct Magazine is now Chief Marketer)
David Harkins is a business strategist, speaker, and teacher.
He is the founder and executive consultant at David Harkins Company. In his spare time, he writes hikes, explores, and creates art. Although, not necessarily in that order.
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