CRM and the customer experience - How can technology support the customer experience?

In line with many of the early implementations, businesses anticipate a CRM solution to their problems, be they processing costs, staff training costs or customer retention challenges. Only in a few instances are firms thinking in terms of impacts on the customer experience and the effect of CRM technologies on the perception of their business.

Some of these issues seems to have arisen as a result of the vast array of solutions which are sold under the CRM banner with applications ranging from remote sales force management to intricate analytic tools and sophisticated telephony infrastructure being marketed as CRM. Because of that diversity, this paper looks at what the range of underlying technologies can and should deliver to the end customer. It does not go into great detail on any technology or indeed any particular business function, the focus is on what all this means to the customer and thus highlights some of the issues to consider when designing CRM applications.

Data is the core of much CRM functionality. And newer technologies such as .net and web services in general have made data accessibility much more straightforward. So the challenge of retrieving data from a range of host systems can be addressed at a reasonable cost. The impact of this from the customer point of view is that it becomes possible for their first point of contact to understand the complete picture of them as a customer. Few things have more disenchanted customers than the all too frequent occurrence of being approached with a product cross sell when they have already bought the product from that organisation. Lack of visibility of the full range of customer holdings is a major constraint on the sales productivity of front line staff, both in terms of wasted approaches with associated negative customer reaction and also through the erosion of staff confidence and willingness to make proactive approaches.

A further aspect of the data aspects of CRM relates to additional customer data. Whilst policy systems have a wealth of data on certain aspects of the customer relationship, they frequently lack the ability to capture additional information which will help to build those relationships or data on individuals who do not currently have an active product. Good CRM customer views will allow capture of customer preferences - and at a much lower level than the standard mail and telephone preference indicators. They will also integrate information often contained in standalone or third party marketing databases such as when the customers' car insurance is due to renew.

Making this data available to front line staff provides a number of positive advantages as well as removing potential pitfalls. Successful CRM solutions have used these features to promote non-threatening interactions between front-line staff and customers or prospects and customer reaction is generally positive, feeling that their opinions are sought and considered. This is often a contrast to more traditional marketing approaches which can be seen as imposing the corporate view on the customer, often year after year. Few traditional systems have the ability to record the fact that this customer does not have a car and thus they are approached about car insurance year after year or even more frequently as no renewal date is recorded.

Data capture, storage and visibility is an important building block for CRM but the follow up of sophisticated analysis of the data also has a significant role in improving the customer relationship. Analysing the data and producing meaningful segmentation and strategies for those segments is a key element of creating what the customer will recognise as a relationship and putting you in the position to manage the relationship rather than react to change when it happens. Some successful CRM users view this as allowing the customer to manage the relationship but aspects such as ensuring non-profitable customers are serviced at appropriate cost mean that the company must control the reaction to individual preferences.

We've talked to organisations recently which routinely do not approach the group of long term profitable customers as they are concerned that increased contact could cause these people to review the arrangement and cancel or defect. It's an unusual approach to CRM but a business based decision based on analysis of the customer base and targeting the marketing strategy to a perceived profile. Improved CRM technology allows detailed testing of this approach, with champion and challenger processes applied to provide a real understanding of whether it is best to stay silent while the premiums are paid or whether the customer group respond better to a contact strategy appropriate to their circumstances.

Preparation of specific approaches appropriate to the customers' circumstance, and taking account of previous approaches is also an aspect which can be provided by the data analysis element. Many organisations like their front line staff to generate leads and sales by asking the customer if they are interested in a particular product. Approaches like these are markedly more successful when the customers circumstance has been analysed using all available information rather than being based on the limited information available to front line staff. Even when there is a full view of the customer details available it is challenging for the staff member to assimilate all the data and select the most appropriate approach in a short space of time.

Workflow technology is a feature of many of the CRM packages tracked by Cantata although not one which is usually at the forefront of CRM planning. In the implementations we've seen the sensible use of workflow has a significant impact on the customer experience and when combined with case handling features it can have a great impact on the overall customer experience. Yes, workflow is largely about maintaining a consistent process but that's where it proves so useful as tasks are clearly visible in the system and can be managed. With case functions added it becomes simple for all front-line or back office staff to see what is happening with a particular piece of work and who in what area is dealing with the current tasks. The investment in defining processes and responsibilities can be considerable but the payback is significant in terms of making sure things complete first time and without fuss, even chasing the customer automatically when a response from them is needed. A particularly good example of workflow which merits mention in it's own right is lead management and tracking. It's well known in financial services in particular that there is an enormous leakage of leads from the time they are identified to completion but it's very important to be clear about what we mean by a lead here. For these purposes, leads are expressions of interest by a customer - not "prospects" extracted from marketing or servicing data as potential areas of interest. The customer has been involved in creating a "lead" - perhaps they have completed a return slip from an advertisement or spoken to a contact centre agent. Estimates of how many of these leads are never fulfilled vary quite widely but all companies recognise that some are never actioned for a range of reasons, including administrative failure at some point in the process. Ensuring that all customer requests, be they sales leads in the conventional sense or perhaps just requests for information are captured to a lead tracking system using workflow and identifying items falling behind schedule can make sure that customers get what they ask for. That's the very least they expect when making contact and frustration increases rapidly if they have to ask on multiple occasions.

Much is made of the advantages of telephony features in CRM for call centres and it's true that this is one of the least popular and most vocally parodied aspects of the customer experience and it's very difficult to draw the line between CRM technology and general telephony technology. If we discount voice recognition systems, routing and queuing mechanisms as telephony choices the main CRM technologies are dialling number recognition and, usually associated, computer telephony integration (CTI). Whilst enabling contact centres to respond more personally to the customer in appropriate circumstances, the main benefit of these technologies is to the agent and the speed and capacities issues of the call centre. The customer is aware only that the delay in identifying them and retrieving their details is reduced. On the other hand the agent will also take more interest in recording additional telephone number, particularly when a number has not been recognised and there will be variations in the speed and style of service when the customer uses a number which is blocked or not recognised.

Technologies associated with CRM solutions and indeed many packaged CRM systems have also provided the ability to make a wide range of processes available across a range of channels. A single web service can be used across branch, telephone centres and internet site leaving the choice of channel to the customer. Customer perception of this availability is usually very positive provided they are informed of the options and allowed to choose as appropriate rather than being forced into a particular channel because of corporate strategies or poor staffing levels.

The technological features and applications around CRM can make the proposition easier to implement and maintain and can have a positive impact on the customer but it's important to remember that CRM is not ultimately a technology project. The issue around CRM is as always how the processes are designed and implemented and with what objective. Successful programmes are generally driven by the CEO and many encompass widespread cultural change. The successes of these designs are ultimately what impact the customer far more than individual technologies.