You and Your Customers

Your company is investing heavily in customer relationship management (CRM) tools, has a dynamite Web site and runs a call center armed with customer information on each agent's screen. It's customer-centric - and "customer" is today's mantra.

But hold on. First, answer these four simple, informal questions that - for me - distinguish mantra from reality. If your company scores fewer than four "yes" answers, then it's kidding itself. It may have a great CRM strategy, but it doesn't have a true customer relationship perspective.

1. Are all customer e-mail messages automatically acknowledged and answered, with each query or problem fully and personally responded to by knowledgeable staff?

2. Is online handling of credit and payment terms for new customers an integral component of your CRM base?

3. Are at least 25% of bonuses and related performance incentives based on customer satisfaction metrics?

4. Is your call center staffed by well-trained personnel who are rewarded on the basis of the quality of the customer relationship?

There's a single, common link among these four questions: the quality of the customer experience. A company can't be customer-centric if it ignores the foundations of the experience. Not answering e-mails is saying, "Don't bother us; we're not interested." Surveys routinely show that more than half of all e-business sites send this signal. But they boast of how much they care about the customer.

The second question is perhaps the most revealing about turning customer "focus" into customer relationships. Credit is at the very core of every commercial relationship. While credit cards handle payment for a product or service, they don't address financing terms, lines of credit, loans or leasing, payment schedules and the like. These are particularly key for large consumer purchases and just about everything having to do with small-business e-commerce. Companies often tell me, "We haven't thought about this." That's like saying, "We haven't really thought about the relationship."

The third question falls outside the control and possibly the influence of most people. But the way it's answered sends a very clear signal about the priority that top management really places on the customer relationship.

A book written by former Marshall Industries CEO Robert Rodin called Free, Perfect, Now (Simon & Schuster, 1999) compellingly shows how most organizations' reward systems actually get in the way of effective customer relationships. Sales staff are rewarded for meeting quotas and, in many instances, pushing the product of the month. Production is incented to meet budgets and control costs. The credit function is rewarded for controlling risk, which often means declining customers or at least keeping them waiting.

The performances of IT and human resources largely aren't measured in terms of - or even affected by - customer satisfaction. The companies that are best at customer relationships base their incentives on the relationship. That ought to be the norm, not the exception.

The fourth question deals with an area in which we all have experience, and probably bad memories as well. The call center is often the point of first impression for a customer. Many of us don't deal with our car insurance companies for years, until we have a claim. Contact with PC manufacturers or software companies generally comes as a result of a problem.

But what's a "problem" to the vendor is actually more often a crisis to the customer. For the customer, how this is handled defines the relationship. In that situation, a firm wants the best-trained, most responsive people on the phones. And it should treat them well.

IT is very much at the center of CRM. So it should play a real role in helping design the customer experience, not just the technology platform. If your company scored 0-for-4 in these questions and you feel you can't do much to change those answers, you'd better try, because otherwise, all that CRM work is literally a waste of time and money.

Keen recently published two books, The eProcess Edge (McGraw-Hill, 2000) and From .Com to .Profit (Jossey Bass, 2000). Contact him at peter@peterkeen.com.

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