A Holistic Approach to CRM

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineAbout six years ago, I made a presentation at a trade show about CRM (Customer Relationship Management). When I was asked to speak at this event, the choice of topic was left to my discretion. At the time, CRM was the new buzzword. Because I was unsure about what CRM really was, I assumed that others would be likewise perplexed. It turned out that I was right. Most of the attendees had heard just enough about CRM to pique their interest but were hard-pressed to have a cogent conversation about it or know how to react to it.

Was CRM simply the hot acronym of the day, destined to be forgotten in a year or two? Or would it become the next big thing? Perhaps it was an up-and-coming concept but was still years away from practical reality. Or was it the new “must-have” technology?

As I begin researching CRM for my speech, I soon realized why there was so much confusion. It seemed that everyone had a different definition of what CRM stood for, what it meant, and how it would ultimately manifest itself. Some viewed it as the next generation contact management tool; for others it meant sales force automation. To a few, CRM was a database of phone messages, while others reduced it to the recording of phone calls. Another viewpoint equated CRM to the management of an increasing avalanche of corporate email messages.

The more perspectives I encountered, the more consternation I felt. There appeared to be no unifying understanding of what CRM meant or the technologies that it entailed. It was quickly apparent that CRM was being purposefully defined by each vendor so as to allow their product offerings to constitute a CRM solution. Everyone seemed to be jumping on the CRM bandwagon, even though no one really knew where it was going or even which way it was headed. They just had a panicked sense that they needed to be part of it.

In my ponderings, I took a step back to see the big picture. Clarity emerged and came into focus. I realized that CRM was not a technology or a solution, but rather it was a philosophy, a mindset, an “enlightened” approach to doing business. I was not alone in this determination; there were others who essentially concurred:

CRM is treating different people differently. (William Hurley)

CRM is a business strategy. (Carter Lusher)

CRM is a management discipline to define, execute, and measure an organization’s relationship with its customers. (Kevin Craft)

CRM is a business strategy through which a company seeks to better manage its own expertise, increase revenue, and improve operational efficiencies using knowledge and understanding of its customers and their behaviors. (Christopher Leifreid)

Even among these parallel opinions, there still existed diversity – enough to evade a complete consensus. From these viewpoints, ongoing research, and continued musings, my own CRM understanding emerged: True and successful Customer Relationship Management must be holistic; it needs to address all customers, using every communication media, at all contact points.

Breaking this down, “all customers” includes not only prospects and customers, but also vendors and employees. “Every communication media” comprises the telephone, email, in-person meetings, the Internet, voicemail, IM, cell phone, fax, and so forth. Lastly, “all contact points” encompasses marketing, sales, operations, customer service, accounting, and yes, even the administration aspects of a company.

With all this work to appropriately comprehend CRM, I had grown quite weary of the subject by the time I made my presentation. Even so, it was a big hit and I was to share it twice more at future events. However, despite my grand efforts to promote CRM enlightenment, CRM itself remains misused, misunderstood, and misapplied.

Thinking back to the heyday of the dot com era, there was this e-business revolution that its proponents espoused: infinitely scaleable infrastructures (that is, websites with back-end order-processing computer networks) filled with self-service mechanisms (that is, no customer support staff) which would redefine everything from customer service to business models–and even commerce itself. The euphoria this “revolution” generated didn’t last; the grand vision didn’t play out. For the buying public, self-service did not suffice; a technology-centric customer service solution did not satisfy the needs and wants of the masses.

The push for CRM was an emergent solution to respond to this gross failure of e-business and e-commerce in meeting the basic needs of its customers. However, if CRM is to be viewed merely as a technology, it then becomes one technology bent on resolving the shortcomings of another technology. That is why a truly successful CRM implementation must be more than technology; to be effectual, CRM must become a new way of doing business: a set of principles to guide people in how they use technology to serve their customers.

Recall what CRM stands for. It is an acronym for “customer relationship management.” Who wants to have their relationship “managed?” I don’t! Do you? Envision yourself sitting down with a loved one. You look deeply into his or her eyes. After a profoundly appropriate silence, you say, “You are important to me. To make our relationship even better, I am implementing a relationship management system to track and enhance our interactions.” How would your “sincere” words be received? Would your relationship be improved because of your newly professed commitment to it? I think not. Yet this is precisely what too many companies have done when trumpeting their grand CRM initiatives. No wonder that their efforts backfire.

I’m not bashing CRM technology – really, I’m not. Technology is great – as long as it’s in its place. CRM technology that aids and assists people in doing their jobs – be it sales, customer service, or whatever else – is a valuable tool and can produce wonderful results. But when the technology takes center stage and becomes the sole focus and end goal, the human element is pushed aside and no one will likely be happy with the results – least of all the customer.

Every CRM vendor has a product or solution – however they define it – that is worthy of consideration. The real problem comes with the end users’ expectations and implementation.

When the expectations of a CRM installation is that it will be a technological fix, a way to save money, a quick return on investment, or a means to reduce a company’s head count, the end results will likely be disappointing. True, CRM could allow those specific end goals to be obtained, but at what cost? Surely, the “customer,” whose “relationship” you are trying to “manage” will not appreciate these gains. Rather, they will likely be dismayed that the company has become all the more difficult to deal with and harder to reach.

When CRM implementations occur without a requisite management commitment to the CRM philosophy, the result will be throwing technology at a problem that actually warrants a more personal touch. And the results will be disappointing.

If we are not careful in how we implement and promote our CRM initiatives, we could easily find the tide of public opinion turn against us. As it stands, CRM is running the very real risk of becoming an emblem of customer dissatisfaction and angst, criticized and vilified by the general public much like automated attendant and IVR technology is today – and this is no way to manage our customer relationships.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of  Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

[From Connection Magazine May 2007]

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