The Soap Opera of the Organization

When you type in “Customer Relationship Management” in a Google search, you get 4.8 million hits. Which is startling, considering that there is no such thing as customer relationship management.

“What?!” you’re thinking. “Has this guy flipped?”

Yes and no. I understand that CRM is everyone’s favorite enterprise application. What’s not to like? CRM is the poster child for the customer-facing, competitive-advantage-making, agile, turn-on-a-dime organization. The “customer interface” is where it all happens. It’s where the seduction takes place. It’s where the flies land in the ointment. It’s where the drama unfolds. CRM is the soap opera of every organization.

So how come it’s not more successful? The few remaining so-called “pure-play” CRM vendors are finding it very difficult to knock on doors these days. And the function of CRM is being absorbed by everyone from the ERP applications to the document- and content-management vendors.

Because of its apparently self-evident stature as a cure-all for competitive advantage, CRM has been often tried. But it is only occasionally achieved. Perhaps it’s because of the high expectations that CRM implementations are often matched by equally profound levels of disappointment.

If you read the literature—the magazines, the management books—or go to the seminars (543,000 Google hits) you’ll quickly realize that 98% of the content addresses the same question: “How come my CRM isn’t working ...?”

I think it’s because the basic premise—that there IS a relationship between customer and vendor—is inaccurate. I don’t believe there are any transactions between you and your customer that rise to the level of relationship. If you’re lucky, and really, really good, you might have—at best—a series of experiences with a customer. But “relationship” is way overstating it.

Here’s a personal example: I’ve always liked to say that I am really happy with my local bank here in Camden. “They’ve always treated me right,” I liked to say. “I see no reason to take my business anywhere else.”

That was two weeks and a day ago. Two weeks ago, a mortgage broker offered me a better deal than my local bank did on a home loan. And everything I believed about my charming little local bank instantly disappeared. She flashed her 5-1/8%-with-no-points at me, and I jumped ship faster than a sailor on weekend leave in Bangkok, and you would too. Customer loyalty has a very low boiling point.

I have plenty of justifications for my fickleness, but the central one is: Money talks, BS walks. And I think I’m typical.

Expectation Shock

If customer loyalty is mythical, brand loyalty ain’t much better. It used to be different. My dad was loyal to Plymouth. He only bought Plymouths, including the last car he ever owned, a ’76 Volare wagon. Crappy car, but it was a Plymouth.

But the cars in the showrooms today are barely differentiated from one another. I don’t know about you, but in dim light I can’t tell a Taurus from a Lincoln. And they’re all good—Korea makes cars that work just as well as the ones made in North Carolina.

Seth Godin, author of Permission Marketing, and a new book sillily but memorably titled Purple Cow, spoke at AIIM recently. Good talk; very entertaining. Godin correctly says you can’t just give customers what they want. You have to give them what they don’t expect. Yes, Honda makes the same cars as everyone else —except for one. You know the one I mean—the one that runs on mineral water or whatever. I don’t even know for sure what’s different about it—it’s electric or something, I think. I just know it’s different and I remember that Honda makes it. And so for today anyway, Honda is the car maker that stands out in my mind.

One of Godin’s messages is this: Mere satisfaction is boring. You have to create “expectation shock”—a result vastly unexpected—in order to have any impact at all on your customers.

I am most certainly NOT a soap opera buff, but I have known some in my life (including both of my parents, rest ‘em). What I think is true about soap operas is true about customer experiences: it may seem like nothing’s happening, but there’s a surprise in every episode. There would be absolutely no reason to follow a serial drama if there weren’t any drama. Same goes for your company’s perception among your customers: if there is no unexpected twist in the way you deal with customers, you’re just another Taurus in a world filled with Tauruses. How do you expect to differentiate yourself when your so-called “CRM” system is designed to avoid the possibility of surprise at all costs?

The fundamental flaw with most CRM implementations is that they strive for mere satisfaction. The greatest myth they ever told you is that “if you keep the customer satisfied, they’ll come back.” No they won’t. A merely satisfied customer will forget you the second they hang up the phone. Remember, I didn’t say they dislike you; I said they forget you.

In Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor, demonstrated that companies tend to reject disruptive ideas—those that don’t appeal to established customers or markets—in favor of sure bets with predictable outcomes.

I think that’s the problem with CRM as we know it today. Organizations, striving to smooth out disruption, sap the juice right out of the experience between company and customer.

So I am hereby proposing that we drop “customer relationship management” from the vocabulary in favor of “Customer Experience Management” or maybe “Customer Expectation Management.” CEM. That way, the focus will stay on the right spot—that brief moment in time when the customer is paying attention to you, and for a nanosecond might give a flying damn about how you can change his life.

The Vendor Imperatives

Where does this leave the “CRM Market?” I am almost surprised to say that the CRM vendor community can expect to do just fine if it wants to. I know all the news about consolidation at the high-end, and the alleged migration of mid-range CRM solutions into the infrastructural ubiquity of the Microsoft universe. It can go that way if it wants, but my guess is that the mid-range vendor community will continue to find favorable reception, if only for one reason: It turns out that CRM vendor companies have the capability to help you create expectation shock.

Take a company like ServiceWare, for instance. Starting on page five in this White Paper, you’ll learn how a customer information database integrated with your call center can create the opportunity—that’s an important word—to achieve expectation shock. Scott Schwartzman, ServiceWare’s COO, advocates the linkage of a knowledge management repository with the call center/customer-contact system. His message addresses customer satisfaction, to be sure, because that’s undoubtedly what his customers ask him for. But it can also be construed to mean something more.

Here’s an example: Imagine if customers could not only have their questions answered, but could have their questions anticipated. KM can do this; if the call center agents could know that “80% of the calls yesterday were about the ad in the Wall Street Journal,” it would be trivial to answer the call with “Hi. Thanks for reading our ad in the WSJ. I can still get you that price if you want.”

“Wow! How’d you know?” That’s expectation shock.

What’s equally interesting about Schwartzman’s article is the notion that this kind of knowledge-rich experience is not only “nice to have,” but is in fact mandatory. Knowledge management, he argues, creates a reservoir of responsiveness that can truly differentiate your company.

There are specific paybacks, he notes, in terms of agent productivity and reduced costs associated with the mere act of efficiently answering customer inquiries (which can be bloody expensive.) This is the obligatory “ROI is King” message that is so vogue these days.

For instance, the Fujitsu Consulting/Documentum partnership, described in part on page four, is all about ROI. You’ve already bought into in an ERP system, they say. We can add extra value to that investment. And that's fine and good.

But if you read between the lines of any of these White Paper messages, you get an entirely novel message: Survival depends on your ability to over-deliver on expectations. “Companies,” he writes, must find ways to answer “their customers’ inquiries now.” Because now (bold for emphasis) is the only time you have. If you can’t create expectation shock during that brief moment, you’ve lost. That customer is no more “yours” than that guy walking down the street.

Vastly Unexpected

Yacov Wrocherinsky, in his article on page 7, writes about the critical need for a trusted advisor, in the form of a consultant partner, when contemplating customer experience management (I like it!). His company, Infinity Info Systems, has been down this road plenty of times, being involved in more than 2,500 customer systems of one kind or another. Among his good advice is a statement that could almost go unnoticed, but is a critical statement: “When CRM implementations fail, it usually has very little to do with the CRM solution itself. CRM is a people-centered application.”

This is the oft-chanted mantra of KM, of course: “It’s not about the technology, it’s about the people.” And it’s as self-evident a statement as you’re likely to find. What’s not nearly as clear is how to square the organizational distaste for disruption (discussed in Clayton Christensen’s books) with the need to inject a healthy level of anarchy into the process. Believe me, I know: companies tend to tread down the familiar paths, believing in the “way we’ve always done it,” even when evidence suggests the way you always did it is dead wrong.

People should come to work every day asking themselves, “How am I going to change things today?” But instead, they show up wondering “How can I make today look exactly like yesterday?”

I think that CRM, or CEM, vendors have an obligation to create that atmosphere of creativity. Every customer interaction should be a surprise. When a call goes exactly the way it is “supposed” to, you’ve just missed an opportunity to awe. What if CRM systems had a random “surprise” filter in place? “Hello. Before I answer your question, I have to tell you this joke I just heard....” Or “Congratulations! You’re the 10th caller on my shift! We always sing a verse of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” to the 10th caller! It’s your lucky day!”

Or better yet, surprise your customers with a real expectation shock —a result vastly unexpected—and I can guarantee you’ll never have to worry about customer relationship management again.

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