High Tech or High Touch? Automation or Augmentation? Ask the Customer!
Customers can provide the decision-making insight you need to make the right CRM investments
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Recently I had the opportunity to speak at an international finance industry conference in Vail, Colo. The event was sponsored by NCR, which assembled a group of more than 100 banking executives from around the world for a summit focused on how customer relationships were changing in that marketplace. As I have been doing a significant amount of CRM project benchmarking in the financial market sector, I found the chance to spend two and a half days delving deep into this topic irresistible.

One of the major topics of contention at the forum was the role technology should play in managing customer relationships. As banks expand into offering other financial services, such as investments and insurance, how should they change their operations model? Should they just stay the course of business as usual? Should they adopt an amazon.com view and go very high tech in how they service clients? Should they augment and empower their business executives by giving them the CRM tools they need to be able to make decisions regarding customer loan and investment requirements without going to a "committee"? What are the right answers?

To debate these issues, the forum assembled a variety of market researchers, educators and industry executives. I found the viewpoints they presented to be very interesting, but the most powerful insights from this summit did not come from any of these individuals. They came instead from four people seated in the front row-real, live customers!

Check in with Clients
NCR had the foresight to realize that as we discussed various ways that we could evolve how we market, sell to and service customers in the financial sector we needed more than just our own view of the issues and answers. To provide that balance, they invited four customers to take part in the entire forum and regularly solicited their feedback on the points being made.

You may think this is an obvious thing to do, and it should be, but all too often when I do CRM project reviews I find that the ultimate end users have never been surveyed regarding what they think. This is a critical error on the part of any CRM team.

How fast should you incorporate an e-business strategy into your customer relationship management plans? Would supplementing your automated call center answering system with more service reps improve customer satisfaction ratings? If you implemented a configurator to generate proposals more quickly, would it help improve your win rates? These are questions that should not be debated in a vacuum; instead, they need to be validated with customers before final CRM choices are made.

Getting in Touch
I have seen a number of ways companies have successfully gone about soliciting customer perspectives, including the following: Customer Advisory Boards: Cisco Systems could well be viewed as the poster child for how to do a world-class job of selling and servicing over the Internet. A tactic it has employed to ensure that what it does with its CRM investments adds value in the eyes of the customer is to share its plans with clients. This practice has proved invaluable, as Cisco has found its assumptions of what customers want do not always jibe with reality.

"All too often when I do CRM project reviews I find that the ultimate end users have never been surveyed regarding what they think. This is a critical error on the part of any CRM team." For example, early on in its e-business intranet development, Cisco felt that internationalization (multilanguage support) would be a critical requirement in the eyes of the customers. Before it invested the significant resources to support that belief, it took the time to ask a cross-section of clients how they felt. Cisco was surprised to find that at that point in time customers rated multilanguage support below a number of other functions. If it hadn't taken the time to validate its thoughts with customers, Cisco would have spent money on the wrong features.

Ride Alongs: Another practice that can help you surface real customer needs is to have CRM project team members go out and ride along with salespeople on real customer calls. General Medical used this approach when it was looking to expand the scope of its CRM efforts a couple of years ago. The head of the project actually went on over 50 calls, seeing firsthand the level of service customers were demanding from their account managers.

By learning how customers want to be sold to, the CRM project team shifted its priorities. GM realized what doctors valued the most was immediate answers to their product questions. So, instead of taking a more traditional course of implementing an opportunity management system, GM focused on developing an interactive selling system that its salespeople could access during the call. The end result was a 400 percent increase in new product introduction close rates.

Buy Cycle Reviews: A method for getting a more detailed look into how your customers make purchase decisions is to conduct a Buy Cycle review. A computer hardware firm we recently spoke to took 100 sales situations, a combination of wins, losses and no decisions, and had the CRM project team members call the customers to interview them on the process they used to make their final decision. The results of these interviews were very eye-opening. For example, 38 percent of those surveyed stated that one of the first buying steps they went through was to visit the top vendors' Web sites looking for pricing information and product availability (neither of which were available on this firm's site). In 32 percent of those cases, if they found a reasonably priced option, they bought it without going through any more steps.

The company quickly decided that the top priority was not enhancing its call center operation (as previously thought), but rather significantly beefing up its e-business capabilities.

Mystery Shopping: Many companies who sell through distributors report that it is not always easy to get direct customer input, as often times it is the channel partner who has the real relationship with the client. To overcome this problem, you may want to shop yourself.

A building-materials firm shared the results of its experiences using this tactic. It had representatives from the sales operations unit contact a sampling of distributors and attempt to buy its own products from them. Because of the complexity of the product line, in nearly a quarter of the cases, the quote the "mystery shoppers" received was incorrect. Realizing that if it were an actual customer, it would quickly lose confidence in the distributor's capabilities, the firm shifted its CRM priorities to implement a product configurator first to make the quote-generation process much easier and more error-free.

What technique you use to get a customer's perspective is not nearly as important as the fact that you find some way to do it. CRM investments are too expensive and the potential ROIs too significant to make wrong choices. Next time you have an internal discussion about where the marketplace is headed, take a lesson from NCR and the other companies above and go ask the customer!

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