How effective is self-service as a delivery vehicle?

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There's an old adage in the psychology biz that says the best way to draw a bead on people's true character is to watch them operate under stress. It has to do with how we revert to our fallback style when we're squeezed. And if you watch for long enough how people behave under varying conditions, you'll see the wisdom of the old saying. Moreover, if you watch companies behave under varying conditions, you'll realize the adage extends beyond the realm of people into the world of business. Just as people tend to revert to their true nature when pressed, so do companies--especially when adverse market conditions cut into sales and margins. That's not surprising, given that people are guiding these companies and setting the tone for corporate behavior. Nice little parallel: companies behaving similarly to the people who lead them. Well, it would be nice, if the behavior we're concerned with was better. Just as some people don't behave so well in crunch time, some companies don't either. Just as their human leaders, they tend to get inwardly focused, protective of their interests, and all too ready to point the finger of blame for their situations everywhere but at the mirror. Mix in denial of the market changes that drive nearly every broadbased shift in business fortunes--plus a penchant for believing that revenue and profits are driven by internal management decisions, rather than by the care and feeding of customer relationships--and you have a recipe for disaster. At least they have. Hopefully your fallback style is more coping than carping; more self-aware than self-centered; and most important, more cognizant of the critical contributions interdependencies with customers make to our success than deluded by corporate ego into thinking we can go it alone, the heck with customers. Unfortunately for many companies, "We can go it alone" is a real killer. Why? Largely because we can look so buttoned-down doing it. "Hey, we're just taking care of business. We got blindsided by the economy, not our fault, so everyone--customers, suppliers, employees--will have to suffer right along with us. Yes, you customers will have to swallow hard and accept customer service over the Internet, sans human intervention. You'll have to accept slower shipments, because we can't afford to maintain inventory levels. You'll have to accept fewer product options and less customization so we can save money. Oh, and you'll have to pay more to make up for our losses." Customers respond--minus the expletives--with, "Get real. Get a line on what we want and deliver it on our terms, or we're happy to go to a competitor." Seems there's conflict brewing. Companies circling their wagons to defend themselves while customers wait for the very same wagons to arrive bearing better stuff and more value. Not very smart on the company side, because if you're going to circle your wagons in dangerous times, you'd better be sure your customers are in the middle of the circle--not out wandering around where they can bump into better deals. Of course that's what CRM is supposed to prevent--by shielding customers from competitive attacks. Actually, it's not a little conflict. It's a raging problem. Each of us probably has a recent incident or three or 10 of previously customer-reasonable companies now circling their wagons to protect themselves against "unreasonable" customer demands. I sure do. To cite just a few: My former favorite virus protection software company releases a new version knowing full well that Microsoft's uninstaller can't uninstall it. The firm declines to provide an uninstaller that works, instead blaming the problem on Microsoft. And when those of us who had to uninstall for any reason wind up with hard drives full of shrapnel, we're directed to Web help where we find no help--except a fee-per-incident service number we can use to obtain support on a brand new and defective product. When we call it, we wait hours for a tech to answer and then lead us through the one-hour-or-more process of picking their program fragments out of our system registries with tweezers. Or, my "favorite" telephone carrier making unauthorized changes to more expensive service plans to my office lines--and then having the nerve to bill me for switching over to the more expensive billing plan (which is the only reason I noticed this serpentine maneuver). Or, my former favorite department store offering us half-off prices on carpet in a "private letter" sale. The store had to keep it private, because we caught them offering us half off nearly twice retail. Or, even my "favorite" airline taking first class upgrades away from very frequent fliers to use them to lure people who wouldn't otherwise be flying. That one really makes me see red. Between us we could probably spend hours developing a litany of examples of bad economic times bringing out bad behavior in many previously customer-friendlier businesses. Behavior that's totally inimical to CRM. Behavior that's been sitting just below the surface interfering with CRM in companies that try it but don't mean it. And that's a powerful message for each of us involved in CRM--whether implementor, advisor, or vendor. Many companies that back off from CRM in bad economic times don't care enough about customers to successfully practice it at any time. That fact is going to be a good barometer of CRM success. And lots of us, myself included, have had a snoot-full of trying to implement CRM in companies whose care for customers is only skin deep--and vanishes at the drop of a hat, or a drop in the market.
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