From communications to credit processing, technology plays a vital role in customer satisfaction and performance processes. Improving CRM is not, however, a problem solely bounded by technology, a contact center agent's ability to navigate a call script, and a salesperson's use of pipeline reporting. Building the strategy around the software, though, can have disastrous results. "One of the issues with the technological approach," says Rich Schreuer, vice president of consulting firm Chadwick Martin Bailey, "is that it can morph into a cost-management tool driven [only] by transactional data--it's the tyranny of the accountant."
Before committing your company to a diet of applications and acronyms that don't address the people and processes that ultimately drive the business, you may find it easier to reach the heart of the matter--building a better relationship with your customers--by setting aside screen pops and calendar entries and data warehouses. Consider the following technology-free approaches to better CRM.
If neither customers nor employees can deftly navigate the customer life cycle, throwing automation at the problem solves nothing. Weed out inefficiencies and complexities that are inhibiting growth and satisfaction.
Bob Henry, COO at sales effectiveness consultancy Extremely Productive, recalls his experience during a recent two-year engagement as COO of staffing technology developer VCG Software. VCG's sales had unexpectedly ground to a halt, and he quickly identified the reason why. "We had extremely complex processes for a very small sales force, and nothing was really working," he says. "There was a 16-step sales process...[that] the sales reps [never] actually used, because it was too complex. So what I did first was change the company around."
Henry replaced the head of sales as well as more than half of the sales force, and then oriented them around better management of territories and travel time, focusing on scheduling customer demonstrations rather than simply trying to log as many sales calls as possible. Before the change management simply looked at readouts on sales call volume and felt satisfied, blinded to the truth of the problem with the sales process by the technological report. "The previous regime was counting sales calls, so according to [that], they were doing really well. But how many times did [sales] actually get in front of people to do a demo?" Sales demonstrations went from just one per month to 30 by the time Henry departed the company, and sales grew considerably without expanding the size of the staff.
Although Henry ultimately engaged the company he now works for to do a SalesLogix implementation, the focus was never on software. "The question was, What are you trying to accomplish? We spent all of our time on the front end asking, What are the issues we're facing? What are the behaviors we need to modify to be sure behavior is going in the direction we want it to go?"
Open the curtain
Expanding customer contacts beyond the typical pattern of offer-and-purchase can help clients remember the strengths of working with your organization, and can provide reassurance that weak spots in service are being addressed. Reminding customers of promises kept--and taking responsibility for promises unfulfilled--does not require complex psychographic analysis or intricate campaign management. It simply requires openness. Colonial Supplemental Insurance took that tactic to heart in expanding the reach of its corporate customer service report card, which illustrates the hits and misses of the company's service organization on a quarterly basis.
Originally the report card was used as a reinforcement tool for insurance agents, but by making its language more accessible, it became a useful communication tool for policyholders as well, even with an occasional wart. "You have to share the good and the bad," says Bridget Bennon-Lytton, assistant vice president of policyholder services at Colonial. "We are finding very consistently that the agents love it [when] we share the results, even when they are not the best they could be." Competitors and dissatisfied customers can paint a picture of a rival's business in far less flattering terms than will the plain facts.
Openness does not only apply to customers. Real transparency includes explaining the cause and effect of your customer interaction processes to the staff expected to execute on them, as well as describing the specific triggers you hope to touch with the client base. "People need to spend more time training on what the corporate objectives are and how they are aligned in the organization. A lot of times people will post mission statements, but no corporate objectives on how to meet those goals," says Sheryl Kingstone, CRM program manager at The Yankee Group. Communicating the why
as well as the how
of any change in company policy or procedures that impact customer relationships can go a long way toward not only building understanding, but toward compliance as well.
Focus on relationships
Technology may bring people closer together through communication, but it's what gets said between individuals that builds relationships. Get over feeling self-conscious about it. "We focused on the motto 'Nothing is more important than our customers.' It sounds kind of cheesy when you say it out loud...but when you establish a rapport, it allows you to have more influence over the person you're talking to," says Abagail Wittnebert, sales and marketing manager for Aprisma Management Technologies, a developer of network management software.
Aprisma worked with Loyalty Factor on training programs for both the sales and technical service teams to
improve on the soft skills of customer experience, with the ultimate goal of cultivating satisfied, long-term customers who won't be looking for an exit when their software contracts are up. That meant not only training sales and support staff to keep clients satisfied, but also providing rewards for maintenance contract renewals. "A lot of software companies tend to skimp on compensation for predictable revenue [annual maintenance contracts], so we said, 'We're going to pay you on these maintenance renewals,' and that was the way we aligned our compensation," Wittnebert says. "So people who do not get good reviews on customer satisfaction don't fit in here."
Many elements of CRM strategy focus on locating a company's best customers, typically with a mind to duplicating that success and making the relationship even more profitable. Consider turning your best customers into credible advocates for peers by building a better pool of reference customers. Just as a corporate report card should not be sanitized beyond credibility, avoid the temptation to filter anything but the most glowingly positive results from your reference program.
Consider making use of the power of the peer reference early in the sales process. FRx Software, a developer of financial analytic applications, moved prerecorded testimonials to an early stage of customer courtship, speeding conversion. "Typically the salesperson would only schedule a reference call late in the sales cycle, when they thought the customer was going to buy. But now [prospects] can find out about other people using our tool, and [if] the other people are happy," says Joanne Pinter, FRx field marketing manager.
Don't let lack of access to a top client executive stand in the way of building a larger base of proven satisfied customers. "You want to find people high enough in the organization to be able to talk about business results, but low enough--close enough to the solution--to be able to answer questions" about the details, says David Sroka, president and CEO of Point of Reference, a services firm specializing in building referral relationships.
When reference customers are mentioned, some immediately fear a costly marketing endeavor. If an incentive is called for, Sroka recommends presenting nonmonetary perks, such as a hotline to senior management or greater access to the product development process. "When it's about the relationship, as opposed to giving out a shiny object, it seems to be the most valuable."
Count your advantages, and make them count
Improving the customer experience can be as simple as ensuring proper execution on the strongest card in the company's hand. Rather than getting bogged down fighting competitors on their turf, play to your own strengths. Consider music retailer Musicland Group, which, under intense competitive pressure from discounters, electronics giants, and online outlets, decided to refocus attention on its key competitive differentiator: the ability of a knowledgeable salesperson to make a high-value consultative sale.
Of course, Musicland associates were always expected to provide a hands-on customer experience. "We had some great training programs in place, but it was a matter of opinion whether we looked good or didn't look good," says Michael Madden, Musicland president and COO. After implementing a mystery-shopping program with National Shopping Service, Madden found the sales associates' experience lacked depth.
To make the most of the walk-in experience, Musicland redoubled its efforts to have associates engage in discussion with customers and escort the buyer to the product. Not only did this provide greater interaction, but it short-circuited some of the additional issues some customers had finding titles, as Musicland must fit an ever-growing catalog of popular and timeless hits into relatively small stores. "We use it as a strategic tool for upselling," he says. "We [ask], Is there a conversation going on where we can teach ourselves what the customer likes and be able to offer them other things?"
Some Web sites use the same strategy, but retail associates cannot scramble to a collaborative filtering database to make additional recommendations. Also, increasing customer face time at Musicland creates a bonus benefit--a roughly 33 percent lower incidence of shoplifting. "There is no professional [thief] in the world who wants to be greeted. They want to be left alone," Madden says.
Musicland ensured that the process was reinforced both at the associate and at the store management level. Mystery-shopping report feedback is presented to the associate, and customer service scoring has been made a larger component of the store manager's bonus plan. As a result, customer satisfaction scoring is up
20 percent, trending upward even during the recent Christmas season when the sales force temporarily grew by more than 100 percent to handle the holiday rush. "Even with all those new associates, based on all the hard work, we improved our scores on the season. That's almost unheard of," Madden says.
Above all, ensure that the employees facing your customers every day are armed with everything they need to take care of your customers, be it a piece of data, a rational policy, or the proper service training. Last, no CRM suite will make good on your promises unless you hire to your goals. "Helpfulness is not something you can just build into a policy," Chadwick Martin Bailey's Schreuer says. "It has to be a personal trait."
I Spy, Through a Customer's Eye
Don't shy away from auditing the best processes of your rivals --and do so through a customer's eyes. Even at a time when supply-side dominance exhibited by heavyweights like Wal-Mart seems to be overwhelming, looking at your competitors' practices can give you a competitive edge. If you cannot trust your own people to give you the unvarnished truth, mystery-shopping services will often contract such competitive services. You can also ask your own customers about the best aspects of the other companies in your industry, but be prepared: The self-selection bias involved in requesting customer feedback can work against you. "You get those that are really, really angry and really, really happy," says Matt Wozniak, president and CEO of National Shopping Service. "You're not sampling the mainstream client, you're sampling those people." --J.C.
Contact Executive Editor Jason Compton at jcompton@destinationCRM.com