Customer relationship management ­ today's mantra for one-to-one, customer-centric, business practices. But are we really managing customer relationships? Should we and could we ever be managing customers? Are we really in charge? Customer relationship management implies that we are; but that's probably not the case. That word "management" makes the CRM acronym somewhat circumspect. Here's why: The customer is in charge.

Put on your customer "hat" for a moment. Think of the companies with whom you do business ­ the gas stations, grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, airlines. The relationship you have with these establishments is influenced by a variety of factors, ranging from location, to need, to category interest, to the cost of switching.

Circumstances have a major impact on your relationships with various providers. The differentiated experience you might enjoy with one provider or another may be one of several factors that influence your future behavior. Your choice to do business with any company may be an ongoing matter of convenience, circumstance and/or choice. Within the broad scheme of things, customer relationship efforts can make a difference but will not be the only factor that influences customer behaviors.

As customer relationship managers, we might have some influence on the relationship our customers have with us. But the bottom line is the customer is in charge and is a difficult, unpredictable and often confusing entity to track.

At best, we can hope to influence customer choices and behaviors by ensuring that their experience with and resulting perceptions of us are positive.

Sorry to say that customer relationship managers may have limited influence even within their own organizations. Marketing's CRM principles may have a major impact on sales and marketing functions. But they might have limited influence on service policies, product development efforts, product pricing decisions or site location matters.

While we cannot manage customers, we can manage our own organizations. It's a matter of:

1) Corporate adoption of a customer relationship initiative. CRM has to become a corporate initiative. Only then can all departments, divisions and entities begin to buy in. That means educating executives, managers and employees on what will be different, both from the company's and the customer's perspective.

2) Ceasing turf wars about which channel "owns" the customer. Remember that the customer is in charge, and that means they'll decide which channels to use on any given day. Today they may buy through the Internet, tomorrow through the catalog and next week through the local retail store. They want companies to see and recognize all facets of their business through each of these channels.

3) Investing in processes and technologies to enable the most meaningful customer interactions and relationships. Everyone might buy into the idea that developing stronger customer relationships is good. But when push comes to shove, it's much easier to wedge anything new within existing processes and operating practices.

But, CRM requires changes in processes and implementing new technologies. Potential changes and developments might include:

Developing a comprehensive understanding of customers ­ their life stage and lifestyle, past purchase behavior and channel and media preferences ­ then adapting the contact strategy based on these factors.

Meaningful customer information at all points of contact and the ability to collect additional information at all points of contact.

A customer information management plan which outlines how customer information should be shared across a variety of systems and functions throughout your organization.

Training for all levels and functions of your organization in ways that optimize customer interactions and relationships.

Processes for measuring the success of your customer relationship efforts. All of those mentioned may represent costly, somewhat inconvenient changes in the ways you do business. Those involved are likely to lapse back to the "old way" of doing things unless you can show some tangible results from the customer relationship initiatives. After all, it's a lot easier to spend 30 seconds on a phone with a customer, than to have a more "meaningful" one- to two-minute conversation. It's a lot easier to mail the same offer to everyone at the same time, than to deal with multiple versions, a variety of media and staggered drop dates. Therefore, the identification and measurement of meaningful results is crucial.

This column is not meant to crush any CRM movements or your departmental efforts to optimize customer relationships. Rather, it provides a framework to ensure that your customer relationship efforts are viable, are adopted throughout your organization and are measurable. The customer will always be in charge. The most we can hope for is that they will find their relationships with us well managed.

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