Is ''Relationship Starvation'' Choking Consumer-Driven CRM Success?

In a world of tight supply integration and intricate business-to-business networks, have consumers become lost in the shuffle, a forgotten hot potato better avoided than handled? Or is there hope for intimate B2C relationships beyond the intermediation of self-service and outsourcing? "It's disheartening to think of it that way," says Denis Pombriant, managing principal at Beagle Research Group, "but it's a real problem. When you outsource...what you're telling your customers is that your business has better things to do than to deal with customers. That's pretty stark, and pretty scary." Gene Alvarez, vice president of technology research services at Meta Group, says consumers have had to sacrifice some intimacy as their requirements have grown. "Consumers are demanding 24/7 service, the traditional nine-to-five corridor has long been blown away from a service perspective...and there is no better way to reduce cost and improve availability than self-service channels," Alvarez says. "Too often, CRM pays for itself through things like relationship starvation," Pombriant says. "If this call center has great ROI because it is able to take thirty percent of the cost out of each interaction, it's asking the wrong question." While he defends the decision to choose higher proportions of self-service and outsourced service where appropriate to the business model, Alvarez acknowledges that costs, rather than satisfaction and revenue, tend to drive those decisions. "You cannot be highly customer intimate and be everyday-low-price at the same time." Bottom-line issues are not the only issues in play. "We [consumers] have a long history of not wanting to pay for service," Pombriant says. He also suggests that in the manufacturing industry, higher quality and lower defect rates over the past two decades may have ironically lowered the quality of service, simply because the support agencies are not leaned on quite as heavily to ensure customer satisfaction. "The message is, 'Please buy from me, pay me, maintain your own account, but please don't call us,'" says Bob Davis, CEO of online customer management firm Peakstone. If the low wages and drudgery associated with many directly customer-facing jobs today are pushing people to career paths away from end consumers, Pombriant holds out hope for the future. "There are more people who would like to make a living in service and support," he says. "There is something good and ennobling about being able to solve other people's problems--that's why people become doctors and nurses."
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