The Customer is Always There!

I need a new cliché. 

Because I am SO tired of the “10 blind men describing an elephant” story that I could plotz. But the problem is: it’s SO right for describing the market’s apparent conception of customer relationship management (CRM). I had a nice chat with Pete Strom the other day. Pete is general manager of Consona CRM, which is the division of the company that drives the KNOVA and Onyx products. Consona is a relatively new name for the company (it had been called M2M Holdings). Its flagship product, Onyx, is a long-time player in the more or less pure-play CRM marketplace. KNOVA, a recent acquisition, added knowledge management and service resolution technology to its plate. So, as a company, Consona has taken a pretty wide view of its role as a “CRM” provider.

“You can’t look at CRM from an isolated, siloed perspective,” insists Pete. “Instead, you need to think of it as ‘total customer management.’”

Unfortunately for the Petes of the world, buyers are still overcoming a particularly bad taste in their mouths, acquired during CRM’s notorious “hype cycle” days, and still lingering like the backwash from a three-day old Budweiser with a well-marinated cigarette butt. Nasty and unforgettable.

I lived through the early days as a chief water-carrier for knowledge management, so I know a thing or two about over-hyped technology fads. But on the Richter scale of over-expectations, customer relationship management went to 11. “We have great conversations with potential customers,” says Pete, “until we say, ‘Sounds like you need a CRM solution.’ Then they back up: ‘Oh, no...not that! We’re not spending $10 million on CRM.’

”What happened? There are probably many explanations—long implementation cycles, few reliable metrics, lots of money, not much tangible return. But Pete is probably right on the mark with his assessment that companies were too focused on the trees to see the forest. “Some people look at a salesforce management tool, in a subscription-type service (gee, I wonder who he’s talking about?), and think they’ve got CRM. That’s not CRM; that’s automating a particular function in the organization. Others apply knowledge management for call avoidance, and to deflect contact with customers. That might be valid from a financial perspective, but it’s not CRM either.

”It’s a now-classic scenario: When confronted with a painful business problem, the natural inclination is to aim directly at the point of pain. Understandable. So how has it made an impact on CRM, specifically?

What happened in the late ‘90s was a social movement toward customer worship; the cult of the customer was fiercely evangelized and well marketed by the popular business gurus of the day. They took a lot of pages from the evangelical preachers’ handbook, but the one that had the greatest impact was the sermon of self-evidence: It’s hard to argue against customer service; kinda like asking if you love your mother.

So, with customer service firmly planted in the zeitgeist, the managers set out to “solve the customer service problem” (not even certain, in many cases, one existed). Driven in part by upper management edict, and in part by intense vendor persuasiveness, managers of that era assumed, understandably, that any problem had to have a matching solution. And because customer contact usually revolves around some sort of technology solution, then the answer to the customer service challenge must also lie in a technological “system” of some kind.

But to Pete’s point, a superior customer experience is only enhanced by technological support, not created from it. “Total customer management,” in Pete’s view, is a way of first defining what you want your experience with your customer to be from a holistic standpoint. Sort of a “start-with-the-outcome-you-want-and-work-backwards” approach. “From that point you can outline the changes you need in YOUR organization, both culturally and within the various processes,” he says.

"It’s a cultural thing. It starts with the people, then the processes and it all cascades down from there,” says Pete.

“First of all, the company has to identify that—culturally—this is the value that we want our company to express. There are a lot of things that affect the attitudes of people before you ever get to the technology.

“This is the hardest thing to do,” continues Pete. “And I’ve seen it done right less often than I’ve seen it done wrong. Most companies want to skip straight to the technology part, to implement something and think they’ve solved the problem.” But, of course, Pete insists there’s a “value litmus test” that every company should take before even considering a technology solution. “It has to cut through from the top to the bottom that this is a fundamental value for our company. Businesses that get caught up in the tactical everyday things get into ‘react-mode’ and they forget the hard process of reinforcing the cultural values they are trying to communicate.”

I remember reading a Gartner report, and one part really stuck with me. The analyst was talking about something else, but mentioned, in passing, that many companies’ ultimate resolution for the worst-of-the-worst customer problems is to keep escalating it through supervisors until the customer just gives up, and either caves in on the problem or goes to the competition. Cut your losses while you can. The most extreme example of this “strategy” is the “contact the CEO” form on the company website. By the time you’ve gotten this far with your problem, reasons the “strategy,” you’re probably resigned to NEVER having the problem solved.

Well, if that’s your value, go for it. But Pete thinks that most companies want to do it another way. He tells the story of an after-hours phone call into the problem resolution center at the company he works for. The caller, calling California from the east coast, probably just expected to leave a message, maybe vent a little, and hope that someone got back to him.

But on this night, Pete recalls, one of the big sales managers was working late and picked up the night bell. Now here’s where the story could take one of two possible turns: the manager COULD have said “Leave me your number; someone will call you back.” But instead, he was able to get into the problem-resolution logs, see where the gentleman’s case resided and offer some satisfaction.

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