While on vacation more than 2,000 miles away from home, Mrs. Jones walks into a branch of a bank that is affiliated with her community bank that she uses at home. The teller greets her by name, receiving this information from the facial recognition system located at the door. The system identifies Mrs. Jones and automatically displays information about her accounts, recent financial transactions and purchases while on vacation, as well as personal information such as the names of the other members of her household and her love for snorkeling and fine wines. The teller assists Mrs. Jones in acquiring some travelers' checks (which she receives free of charge because she is a gold customer at her home bank). The teller then offers Mrs. Jones information on the local snorkeling hot spots and learns that Mrs. Jones is considering purchasing new gear on this trip. The teller then offers to extend Mrs. Jones' credit so that she may utilize her bank credit card for her vacation and equipment expenses. Pretty impressive, especially when one considers that the teller is a computer system!
Sound incredible? The fact is that everything in the above scenario is within reach today. All of the technology currently exists, and some small and mid-sized institutions are already beginning to implement parts of it. Better customer service and more productive cross-selling, all at lower costs and higher profits this is the promise of customer relationship management (CRM).
CRM is the notion that businesses should focus on the customer and reinvent themselves to deliver personalized, service-driven sales and support. Some pundits will argue that the overall objectives of CRM are to drive productivity and measurable ROI while improving profitability and expanding market or wallet share. While these objectives are sometimes the result of a well executed CRM initiative, many CRM projects start more simply to help organizations achieve a specific objective such as improving customer satisfaction or retention.
Let us propose a ubiquitous goal that CRM will allow an entire organization to identify, acquire, foster and retain loyal, profitable customers. To accomplish this, organizations will usually require changes in the existing technology systems (and possibly the infrastructure), processes and culture (including perhaps compensation initiatives), and, undoubtedly, leadership priorities. While each area is a topic worth discussing, the focus of this article is on technology what is available and in use today, and what small to mid-sized businesses can expect to see three to five years from now.
We can oversimplify the value of CRM systems by defining CRM as a technology that provides the following services: 1) the aggregation of data to create a single, accessible source (whether physical or virtual), 2) the analysis and presentation of that data as usable information by individuals doing strategic planning or executing strategic sales/marketing initiatives, and 3) tools and information to provide front-line personnel or systems that are interacting with customers and prospects the ability to make timely, educated decisions that benefit both the customer and company.
The key to any CRM implementation is data. Without good data as a starting point, we are limited in our ability to make accurate and insightful decisions on any level. In today's CRM world, one of the toughest challenges is aggregating and cleansing data from various systems into a single repository or data mart/warehouse. Industries such as banking are fortunate to have core processors that can provide a rich starting point for customer information. For most other industries, the integration of clean data is yet a major IT challenge. Ideally, organizations will want to integrate as many data sources as possible when looking at customer, household, product and organizational data in systems that may include operational and back-office databases, spreadsheets and applications, and different channels (including the Web, phone, etc.). The integration may be done in house or through outsourced services depending on the systems involved and level of integration required. The data should then be accessible through a central data mart or data warehouse.
In addition to the organization's own data, CRM systems today often offer the ability to integrate third-party enhancement data. This additional data can provide information such as demographics, psychographics, and behaviors and preferences of customers. Prospect lists can be obtained as well, enhancing the organization's ability to track and analyze new customer acquisition sales cycles and to recognize the source of leads (which is crucial when measuring the effectiveness of the sales channel and marketing mix). Companies such as Acxiom, Experian and InfoUSA provide this kind of data. In some cases, the data can also be acquired directly through the CRM provider online or in another format that can easily be integrated into the CRM data mart.
Improvements in gathering and using behavioral and psychographic data will also be more readily available for smaller businesses in the next few years. Industry normative data, which provides base foundational analysis information today, will be used more and more to improve productivity and to provide a clear picture of the competitive landscape. This will help smaller businesses understand opportunities that they can exploit because of their ability to maneuver with more agility than larger organizations.
Most CRM systems can interface with internal and external data sources in batch mode. When data is copied in batch, there is a deliberate (automated/scheduled or manually triggered) process that updates data on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. This is done to avoid disruption of transactional systems and/or other processes that may be affected by data extraction. In most cases, data is moved in only one direction. In the case of CRM, the process is usually pulling data out of other databases to populate the CRM system. The implication, then, is that anyone using the CRM system may have outdated data; thus, the decisions stemming from that data may be limited due to its possible inaccuracy. For example, you might not be able to see the last few transactions a customer has made to respond to a next-best product recommendation. However, you should be able to see that the customer is a gold-star client who has been with the institution for X number of years.
As CRM systems become more sophisticated and users grow more demanding, we will see more real-time integration of data across the organization and an increase in the ability of all CRM tools to access that data. As a result, CRM functionality will be embedded in core business applications. This will not only bring real-time data access through the CRM tools, but it will also enable the bidirectional movement of data from the CRM system back into the core systems. This means that new data collected in the CRM system will be available enterprise wide. For example, a conversation recorded in the CRM system or a change of address would be propagated back to (or at least accessible by) the other customer systems that may be used by others within the enterprise.
Data cleanliness will continue to be an issue as organizations deploy methods and processes to ensure data integrity. Techniques such as customerization will be increasingly utilized to identify possible duplicate entries. Today, there are technologies that can help in this regard. Customerization algorithms will continue to be improved to increase the accuracy of the matches. On the input side, customer and user adoption of data entry processes and quality assurance of the data will increase as businesses recognize the importance of having a single, clean record for each customer. Many organizations will also use householding technologies to help identify and associate members of a household to allow for more effective profiling and planning at the household level. Advanced householding technologies are already on the market, and organizations exercising a good amount of direct marketing are beginning to appreciate the cost savings and customer satisfaction that result from improved segmentation using householding.
The Internet will continue to be exploited to gather and attract data from customers and prospects. New Internet-based techniques will become increasingly effective over time. Ad hoc survey engines, online self-help systems and e-commerce data collection are all means by which businesses can drive and/or assess user data on an ongoing basis. To help manage support costs, many businesses will utilize and integrate chat-based or live help, proactive problem recognition and correction (i.e., online, automated bug fixes) and the integration of call center systems with overall customer information systems to allow a single face to all customers. These systems and processes will, in turn, generate data that needs to be collected and integrated with the CRM system.
Now that a single source of multidimensional capabilities has been identified, the next challenge for businesses is to analyze and use the data. Today, there are a number of techniques and products that can be used to help make sense of data and turn it into information. One such view is profitability management. This is a way to look at the profit contribution of customers, products and personnel. Depending on the industry and CRM system, some profitability management systems come equipped with the tools needed to enter and analyze key profit variables. Some packages utilize simplistic methods while others use more sophisticated approaches. The sophistication of the program may be driven by the vertical industry of the company, as this makes a tremendous difference in the way profit is calculated and valued.
For example, profit analysis in manufacturing must include variables for inventory requirements and raw material costs, while profit management in banking should include historical funds transfer pricing and branch overhead. Once done, a solid profit analysis will help business managers better price and package their products and determine the most profitable customers and employees. Looking into the future, we will see more sophisticated methods in each vertical to analyze profitability and to use those analyses to make practical decisions. While profitability is a good place to start, some organizations use profit as only one variable within a value metric such as customer or household value indexes (CVIs or HVIs). This can be a highly customized measurement of a customer as valued by the organization. Other groups, such as financial insights, already point out that using a lifetime value index (LTV) is critically important when looking at the long-term potential value of customers. Unlike current methods that only rely on historical data that is held within the CRM system, LTV uses algorithms and statistics in addition to historical information to forecast the future behaviors of those customers. The idea is that someone who has not historically been a "good" customer may, in fact, have the potential to become one; therefore, the organization might want to focus on how to retain and stimulate this customer into being as lucrative as the LTV indicates.
For decades, propensity models have helped organizations to estimate future behaviors and develop next-best product decision tools. These models can be used to assist knowledge-workers in their ability to up-sell and cross- sell additional wares. Typically, these systems use propensity or affinity modeling to generate recommendations. Consider how Amazon.com prompts you to consider other books purchased by people who also purchased the same book you purchased. This is rather simplistic affinity matching. Moving forward, analytical technologies will be used more often to generate anticipated or directed customer behavior. Tools will emerge that consider profitability as well as utilize interactive input as part of the overall heuristics to determine more personalized recommendations.
System-based, automated decision making will become more popular in the future as tools such as online self-help calculators, event-alert generators and dynamic, personalized Web site generation become more prevalent in daily use. These technologies will not only allow the CRM system to complete the analytics, but will also allow the system to act on those analyses in the absence of human intervention.
In the near future, the most dramatic changes in technology and operations will be seen by people who are using CRM systems to service and sell to customers and prospects as part of their regular jobs. Today, knowledge-workers are already using personalized CRM portals for quick access to information resources and customized applications that easily present data. Front-line workers have access to a variety of CRM tools to assist them in making real-time decisions based on the automated, yet specific, recommendations generated by the collective information within the system.
Today, CRM systems often present information in terms of maps, charts and graphs that are generated by report writers and visual profiling programs. Tomorrow, there will be voice-activated and speech-feedback tools, as well as other more elaborate visual aids using 3-D and CAD-style graphics. Armed with their own calculators and self-help systems, front-line workers will be able to quickly find answers to assist customers in their purchase decisions. The use of knowledge databases and artificial intelligence (AI) will make a comeback to allow the front line to focus on assessing the problem and quickly communicating a solution.
Using predictive technologies to proactively address issues will be more widespread so that front-line personnel can participate in more outbound contact rather than simply reacting to customer requests, as is often the case today. As we've seen with automated phone answering systems, we will continue to drive customers with issues to other channels such as Web sites for self help. The goal will be to save the time and talents of educated workers to focus on gathering non-system data, such as a customer's demeanor and future plans. Front-line workers will be transformed, becoming salespeople and/or consultants utilizing the CRM system to research historical information and add value to their personal interactions with customers, whether those interactions are on the phone, via the Internet or in person. To make this cultural change, front-line workers will need to adopt new views (perhaps encouraged by changes in their compensation rewards) so that they use the CRM systems and understand the value of both the system and their front-line interactions. Natural language interfaces will be used by both front-line workers and customers to facilitate easy access to information regardless of location, channel or experience.
The use of wireless devices to access customer information will also become commonplace as customer service is driven away from the office to the convenient location of the customer. Untethered customer service individuals will require the same 360-degree view of the customer/prospect. This view will be directly related to the customer service representative's ability to access the necessary tools and information needed to service them wherever the interaction is occurring. With wireless devices and networks becoming pervasive, it won't be long before the infrastructure is in place to support this. It may, in fact, take longer for the people and software to be ready to take advantage of this technology.
The Future of CRM
Often driven by the need to improve customer satisfaction and retention, CRM systems can aid in understanding a customer or segment to focus sales and marketing activities. We will see more of an appreciation that profitability is a key variable in determining cross-sell promotions, product pricing and packaging based on historical as well as future anticipated consumer information. Lifetime value will be better understood to allow for organizations to think about potentially good prospects and the overall return on the relationship that is developed over time. CRM systems will be blended with operational and back- office systems to provide a seamless, real-time data environment. CRM will not only be about servicing the customer better, but also servicing the customer in the best interests of the customer as well as the business itself.
While CRM may already seem to be an old and jaded term, there is a bright future ahead that will bring new ways for small and mid-sized organizations to communicate, operate and strategize to manage their personnel, customers and prospects. Whether or not we believe that Mrs. Jones needs a new set of flippers, we can bet that CRM is here to stay and that it will continue to change the way we work and live.
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