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Field Workers Take CRM In Hand
Tailoring your CRM programs to the needs of your field users can help you gather crucial information about customer needs and opinions.
Posted Dec 21, 2001
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Years ago, when businesses first discussed implementing CRM, the goal was to build better relationships with customers while automating the service and sales field forces, thus allowing them to serve more customers, more thoroughly, more quickly.

Times change. Now that CRM is fully functioning at thousands of companies, managers are asking if they've really received a significant return on their investment. Are more calls and sales being made? Are customers satisfied?

A company's field force in large part holds the key to how well an organization answers these questions. Businesses are now adding another dimension to CRM--using their field forces to collect and enter market data into the company's CRM system.

"The whole idea of bringing data from the field into an organization's CRM system is very new," explains Ellen Libenson, vice president of marketing for Thinque Systems in Universal City, Calif. "Companies traditionally have deployed mobile workers because their business model demanded it. In the past, companies viewed the field force as a cost center. Today, the field force is being looked at as the best way to communicate with customers and to gather information for the company."

"More companies wish to extend CRM into a more holistic process," adds Bob Merlo, chief marketing officer for deuxo in Denver. "CRM promised it would integrate information gathered and previously held in private silos by marketing, sales and customer service, but it's failed to deliver. There's now more of a movement to tear down those walls and a desire to share valuable information that can be gathered only from face-to-face contact with the customer."

Counting the Benefits

For decades, companies have collected customer satisfaction data by phoning or mailing a questionnaire after an interaction with a consumer. But too often the contact is not timely, so consumers don't remember the details of the meeting.

"Japanese automakers typically follow-up a service appointment one day later with a phone call and one week later with a mailed survey," notes Guy Waterman, vice president of business development and marketing for PointServe in Austin, Texas. "On the other hand, Marriott sends a survey 45 to 60 days after you've stayed at a property. I have difficulty remembering I was there, let alone the quality of service I received.

"Another obvious reason why companies are now using their field force to gather information is because the customer is already aware of your organization, and you are on their home turf," Waterman continues. "Customers are more disposed to answering your questions because (1) the service technician is fairly anonymous--customers probably won't see that person again so they'll answer questions honestly, (2) there's already an existing relationship and (3) they're already there so they're more likely to answer questions [at the time of service] than on the phone a week later."

In addition to getting information in a more timely manner, adding a market data-collecting role to field employees' responsibilities can result in other benefits: Companies get to know their customers better. "Ultimately, the more I know about you, the better the service I'll be able to provide," says Bill Jones, vice president of products for Synchrologic in Alpharetta, Ga.

Companies can win more business. "If your field service employees report that customers are asking about extended warranties or service contracts, you may want to do a direct-mail campaign, or if they're asking for services you don't currently offer, you may wish to add them," says Libenson. "In other instances, the field force can cultivate additional business."

Increased interest in the field force's role can reduce turnover and improve worker morale, and thus, customer satisfaction. "When companies recognize that the field force represents access to a wealth of customer data and can drive incremental revenue, they're more likely to invest in this area," says Libenson.

Planning for Success

Companies trying to integrate customer data gathered by the field force into their CRM system may face numerous challenges, including field workers who resist adding yet another set of tasks to their day--integrating the data collection application with the rest of the CRM system and collecting the right kinds of data.

Says Libenson, "Mobile CRM for the field force requires a new type of application to handle the data collection. These new applications should be integrated with the existing CRM system so that the data will transfer directly to that software."

Before proceeding with the new CRM, it's essential that companies reevaluate their purpose for collecting the data. "There should be value inherent in that data for the company," emphasizes Waterman. "Don't collect information just because the capability exists. There's a cost associated for gathering the information, and a greater cost for analyzing and manipulating it. Is your intent to upsell certain customers? Add new products based on customer needs? Know specifically how your company will use that data."

"The companies that succeed do an extremely thorough and inclusive job in the requirements-gathering phase," says Jones. "You need to share objectives and win buy-in from different constituencies throughout the organization--particularly from the field force, which must be convinced that gathering this data will provide a direct benefit to them and will be a painless process. Objectives will need to be adjusted as top managers learn what the field thinks, but gaining consensus is essential."

"Whoever is going to write the data-gathering form the field force will use or configure the task should do a ride-along with people in the field to see what it's like to do the job and what the workflow is like," says Libenson. "You don't want to upset the workflow or make their job harder."

Ideally, workers will use just one application, with no more than 10 multiple-choice questions that take just a few moments for customers to answer. When workers realize the added task doesn't detract from current responsibilities and understand the value the company expects to gain from accessing the new data, consensus should be achieved.

Jones suggests that companies involve a statistically valid number of mobile workers during beta testing. Perhaps 10 to 15 percent of the field force would be appropriate. It's also wise to include opinion leaders since these participants' buy-in will be critical when the new process is handed off to the full field force.

In cases in which a little extra incentive may be necessary to win field force participation in collecting customer data, "if necessary, you can make the data-gathering part of the job's goals and objectives--workers must have 75 percent of the fields filled in to get a bonus," says Jones. "You encourage workers to ask customers the questions by tying the number of completed surveys they collect to premiums and bonuses."

Once all parts of the organization have agreed to the system's specifications, it's time to build the new application. The mobile middleware market is expected to explode in the coming years, skyrocketing from $137 million in annual sales in 2000 to nearly $1.5 billion in 2002, according to IDC, an IT analysis firm based in Framingham, Mass.

"Initially, when companies extend CRM to their mobile workers, they're looking at providing access to only one application--and overwhelmingly, that's e-mail," says Stephen Drake, a research manager at IDC. "But it's important to make sure the system is extendable to multiple applications. If the application and the device are right and very usable, users will cling to it."

Before hiring a vendor, Drake recommends that companies check out a firm's track record with other clients; financial viability; partnerships with best-of-breed network, device and software vendors; and its ability to upgrade the system in the future and offer wireless options. In addition to checking the references of four or five contenders, Jones suggests that companies also refer to analysts' reports and studies in the middleware space.

"You need a tailored application for field and service people plus an underlying framework that will help share information between systems--an interrelational database," Jones says. "Then you need to be able to take information from one database and intelligently distribute it to other mobile workers and people throughout the organization. Sensitive information can be password-protected, but the key to a successful CRM implementation--including adding field force-collected customer data--is sharing that customer information with all parts of the organization that may come into contact with that customer or that may develop products or services that might appeal to the client."

"A mobile data collection system should allow for one-time entering and processing of data, saving employees from unnecessary paperwork and saving the organization the trouble and expense of hiring staff to enter and aggregate the data," says Libenson. "Any program used should integrate with the CRM system so that data is saved immediately and made available to system users."

Triple-check device viability. "The device must do justice to the software and vice versa," warns Thinque's Libenson. "CRM applications were designed for use on a desktop or notebook computer--not for small handheld computers--so most existing CRM applications can't be viewed on a small screen like the 0.25-inch VGA screen that is common on Palm handhelds and Pocket PCs. Mini-notebooks or clamshells like the NEC MobilePro will be able to display more data on the VGA screen due to sheer size and are thus more accommodating to CRM software. The ride-along at the beginning of the process is essential because you may find that your workers would be unwilling to lug around a particular device.

"You can't slow your employees down," she says. "You must match the device to the environment and to the workflow. Someone who has to enter lots of data will need a device that has a very usable keyboard and a readable screen. The device must be easy to use and carry and make the person's job smoother."

Consider connectivity. "People assume that mobile equals wireless," reports Synchrologic's Jones. "That's not true. They also believe that the wireless infrastructure can be all things to all people. That's not true either. Even for workers who travel out of a coverage area or work in environments that won't support a signal, devices should work well for data connection even when they're offline. Data should still move quickly, and added data should be uploaded to the network later."

"Think about what type of information needs to be viewed and when," IDC's Drake adds. "Wall street traders often need real-time wireless updates, which is why RIM devices have become a standard on Wall street. Some companies can have their mobile workers synchronize their data with the corporate database at the end of the day rather than having continuous, real-time network access, which would save them significant amounts of money."

If users need to access real-time data, make certain that the function will work. "If anything about the use of the device or software is cumbersome, difficult or simply doesn't work very often, field acceptance will be compromised," Drake concludes.

Companies should pilot test their extended CRM system for two reasons, says Jones: "First, you want to make certain it works the way you want it to. Secondly, you're building community success and additional buy-in and ownership of the goals."

In the final stage, mobile workers need to be trained both in how to efficiently use the software and hardware they've just received as well as in the importance of collecting customer data accurately.

What to Ask

Pioneers in the field-collects-customer-data frontier typically have their field workers gather data about on-site inventory, asset management, customer satisfaction, competitive products and promotions, buyer behavior, retail conditions and site inspection results. Not all customers should be asked the same questions. "There needs to be intelligence around selecting who is asked what," says PointServe's Waterman. "Asking all of your customers the same five questions may not be a good use of time and effort. Data collected must be relevant. You don't want to ask a question regarding dog food to a person who doesn't own a dog. Companies need to consider the type of data they'll collect and when. You also have to assure customers that their information will be kept private--and then stand by that statement."

Prominence Pays

Collecting customer data can help more than your company--it may also help your customers. Jones of Synchrologic cites an example of a company that was able to share information with its customers to foster increased loyalty. "A casualty and property insurer, Royal & SunAlliance, gave its field workers devices so that they could log details about clients' properties during on-site assessments. Agents would note that by adding a light to an exit sign or adding a railing to a staircase, the client could minimize losses. The CRM system then assembles a standard report incorporating those details, which it posts on the insurer's Web site within 24 hours. Clients are told to visit the Web site to see how they can lower their rates, strengthening the insurer-insured relationship."

As companies scramble to maintain their competitive edge, Jones reminds them to keep their field force in a prominent position: "Your IT investment shouldn't stop at the desktop. It should extend to the field where the customer interaction and sales are actually occurring. When you give your field workers mobile devices and a responsibility for collecting customer data, you're investing in more than your employees, you're investing in your company's future."

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