Adopting a customer-centered marketing strategy sounds simple. Focusing on the customer's needs, values, and expectations, and subsequently providing value for the customer, is a goal to which many companies aspire, but far too few deliver. The key to 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 most companies don't have an integrated infrastructure--technology, people and process--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 process 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 change the way they work, if necessary, to provide better service to the customer?
- Is your entire company well-trained in the art of customer service, and is everyone customer-focused-regardless of their contact frequency with the customer?
- Do you have all the data about your customers that you need?
- Are your systems capable of supporting your goals and objectives, in line with your customer's expectations?
If you have found that you can't answer "yes" to each of these questions, you are not alone. Nevertheless, you have taken the first step in recognizing and accepting your company's shortfall, as it relates to your Customer Relationship Management (CRM) capabilities. To get back on track, keep in mind the three dimensions of CRM: technology, human behavior, and organizational process.
Technology: Data, Systems, and Information.
If you are going to be effective in implementing a CRM strategy, you're going to need many different datasets. Data not just about your customers and their purchase patterns, but also data 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 in accomplishing your strategies, you will need to be able to gather, move and mine the data for relevant information. Your systems must be integrated 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 data integration necessary to truly assist the organization meeting the needs of the customer. Ask yourself, how does the information collected at these points of customer contact make its way through your company? Can product and market managers, market research, database marketing, and senior executives have access to this information--at the appropriate summary or detail level--to allow for sound business decision-making?
Finally, most data has some value in and of itself, but it is the combination of the data and system capability and know-how that provides the actionable information needed to create a competitive advantage in the marketplace.
For example, let's assume that 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 key products and services against products and services 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 have and influence your customer's 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 information needed for the answers is often spread throughout the organization on computer disks, in file drawers and in employees' heads, which takes weeks or months to assemble. With such disparate and decentralized information in an organization, decisions tend to be 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 such, the ability to make sound decisions based on the information becomes suspect, and therefore will 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 data 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' face is getting an enterprise-wide focus on the customer. Outside of the sales or customer service areas, most individuals within an organization are often not directly exposed to customers. These individuals make vital decisions affecting the customer. Everyone in the organization--from the CEO to the line-worker--must be focused on the fact that the customer signs the paycheck.
This type of focus is difficult to achieve; as individuals within an organization are often focused on completing the task at hand and often have difficulty in seeing how their duties link to the big picture--the satisfied customer. The good news is that overcoming human behavior challenges start with a simple act-communication.
Communicating change to all employees is essential, 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 customer relationship strategy successfully:
- Get the individuals who will be affected by the change involved from the beginning of the project. Tell them about the initiative, what the organization is expecting to accomplish the change, how the customer 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 submit comments. You will have many audiences--from senior executives to telemarketers--within your organization. Each audience will likely need a different slant 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 communication skills and provide additional training in this area if needed. While these three points will not solve all of your change challenges, you will be on the road to a smoother transition from merely having a CRM strategy, to delivering on
your customer's needs and expectations.
Organizations are often their worst enemy 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 the limitations of technology in place at the time a particular process or procedure is developed. What has been done in the past may no longer be the best guide for what to do in the future. Organizations must prove themselves adaptable with processes and procedures that are designed with the customer in mind.
To better understand the effectiveness of your organization's customer-focused processes, consider the following questions:
- Are your organization's overall customer goals in-sync enterprise-wide? In many organizations, there isn't alignment through divisions and business units. For example, senior executives may want the organization focused on increased customer satisfaction and loyalty (retention), but the sales department is charged with increasing units sold or increasing the number of new customers--purely a numbers-driven approach--and the compensation structures are designed to support a new business model. Insurance companies, among others, have typically followed this model, paying more commission on products sold to new customers than commissions on renewals or cross-sell/upsell to existing customers.
- Do your processes to make life easier for you or your customers? Not surprisingly, most organizations design processes to streamline operations for internal efficiency. However, keep in mind that processes and procedures that engage the customer should be designed more for the customer's benefit. It should be easy for the customer to buy products/services, return products/services, or otherwise interact with your organization.
- Have you established baselines and measures for optimal process performance? In other words, how long are your customers waiting on hold when they call in? How long should they wait? Are you telling them in the on-hold messages the expected wait time or better still, the best time to call when the wait time is the shortest?
- Are your processes and technology seamlessly integrated to streamline customer interactions and satisfaction? Nothing's worse than being stuck in an endless telephone loop because the process for handling various call types wasn't thoroughly designed before implementing the supporting technology. Think about your customer-facing technology from a customer point of view. Have you walked through the process that the technology enables from your customer's perspective? What are their needs and expectations and how can your technology enable, rather than disable, support?
Managing the total customer relationship is dependent upon how well these dimensions--technology, human behavior, and organizational process--are developed, managed and integrated. For success, equal attention must be given to all three dimensions.
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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