By Clyde Foster, president and CEO of eConvergent
Today's customers communicate with e-businesses through multiple media channels, often using voice, e-mail, fax and Internet chat for a single transaction. Customers and potential customers not only want to interact with vendors through multiple channels, they demand the ability to move seamlessly from one medium to another.
Yet, the promise of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) hinges on one fundamental element: providing customer service and sales representatives with a complete picture of a customer's information when they interact. The demands of multi-channel queuing and routing are further complicated by the need to maintain this single data repository for each customer and make it readily available to any employee in any department who interacts with the customer, regardless of the media used.
This complete perspective of customers is critical to unlocking the full potential of CRM systems, and requires diligent planning and execution to be successful. So how can such a series of systems be created and why is it important to do so?
360-degree Customer View Drives Sales and Efficiencies
Beyond excellent communication, companies derive significant value from having a complete, 360-degree "picture" of their customers. It is important to know their recent purchases, customer service contacts, warranty issues, preferences for communications channels and more.
Similar to the old-fashioned grocery store, where customers were known by name and by their individual tastes, modern companies must create proactive, noninvasive methods to obtain accurate portraits of their customers as individuals. And they must make all that information available to company representatives dynamically, in real-time.
In addition to the demands placed on the systems by multiple communication channels, many firms face scalability challenges when interacting with customers. Often, the systems installed to manage customer interaction are unable to handle fluctuating volumes of transactions and their increased complexity. The growth opportunities presented by e-commerce require scalable systems that can seamlessly accept vast surges in browsing and in transactions.
Equally important is the process of matching customer requirements with the most qualified sales, service or support staff members. This consolidation must be accomplished in real-time, using an open architecture that embraces the best-of-breed partners for each communication technology. At a higher level, there also is the need to integrate all these customer records into a unified database for data mining and business analytics processing.
These growing user demands are quickly shifting the focus of the CRM industry from sales force-centric applications to customer-centric solutions. This shift places significant new requirements on the organization's CRM infrastructure. Traditional customer interaction methodologies such as voice-only call centers and Internet-only electronic services and sales channels are being replaced by multi-channel customer interaction systems that combine all communications into one system. Customer-facing technologies, such as e-mail response systems, self-service portals, Web collaboration and chat services, are converging with traditional call-center technologies to provide seamless and efficient customer interaction. Companies that master these technologies can create high-value, lifelong customer relationships and deliver higher levels of customer satisfaction than ever before.
For example, a customer may wish to start a transaction on the Internet, receive instructions from an agent using real-time chat, click on a button to have a telephone conversation with that agent to answer one question, then move back to the Internet to complete the transaction. If this customer returns the item or purchases a service to go with it, the information about these transactions may be kept in different parts of the organization, fragmenting a complete picture of their history. When that customer communicates with the company in the future, their complete background must be retrieved from multiple sources and there is often no way to match them to the service representative most familiar with their interests or background. When convenience and familiarity lead to loyal customer relationships, firms must create these complete customer pictures across multiple channels and match requirements to staff expertise all in real-time.
Connecting Customers with Customer Service
Companies that have already implemented a CRM suite know that it does not always present all relevant information in real-time as a single "picture" of a customer's history. It is this complete, real-time access to customer data that often determines the effectiveness of a CRM package. In fact, a recent Gartner Group study, The Emergence of CRM Infrastructures (March 2001), indicates that the average Fortune 1,000 company stores customer data in a minimum of 10 disparate systems. These "islands" of information obstruct great customer relationships when they are not connected and accessible in a rapid and meaningful way. Gartner does not expect this complex environment to simplify anytime soon.
Most companies cannot provide a consolidated view of customer data, such as past transactions or customer service inquiries, because it is organized in disparate databases across the enterprise. While CRM suites may look like an answer, they can actually compound the problem by creating another database with fragmented information about customers. These suites provide productivity gains for specific processes (i.e., sales, service, marketing) but are ineffective when it comes to managing data outside that vendor's CRM suite (i.e., custom/homegrown e-mail, marketing and sales applications).
Imagine the impact on a business if its employees at the point of interaction were proactively presented with the answers to questions such as these: Does the customer have other accounts with the company? Did this customer receive an offer from marketing recently? Is there an unresolved problem that should be addressed before attempting to cross-sell?
CRM Still Strives for a Single Customer View
As a result of these types of inquiries, traditional CRM is expanding its scope to include every type of contact with customers, and doing so within many different types of companies. With growing numbers of traditional brick-and-mortar businesses creating electronic commerce operations, and virtually every organization either implementing or planning to implement a business-to-business or business-to-consumer e-commerce strategy, CRM will touch virtually every company and multiple business groups within each firm. Within this evolution of the CRM industry, the new standard will be to have real-time access to a complete, 360-degree view of customers. Until now, there have been no CRM suites that could handle multi-channel communications, create a complete customer picture and match customer needs to staff expertise in real-time.
Historically, businesses have had three application options:
- They could purchase various point products from multiple vendors, and then either integrate them in-house or work with an external systems integration firm.
- They could use a standard CRM suite that combined several features.
- They could create a fully customized solution, either in-house or through an outside consulting firm.
All three solutions, however, have proved problematic.
While the point product solution is the lower-cost option of the three, it presents higher risk and a lower success rate. Second, standard product suites have not included multi-channel communications, the ability to create a complete customer picture or real-time customer/staff matching. Third, using custom CRM software technology, it can take two years or more for a company to plan, integrate and deploy a rich CRM system. With vendor selection, architecture development, application integration and client environment integration, the task is a complex and risky one.
The answer to this deployment dilemma rests in a CRM suite, but one that has the power to combine customer data from phone, fax, email, Web, chat and beyond into consolidated customer view in real-time. Moreover, this information must be accessible by the company staff member whose skills and knowledge represent the best match for the customers' needs.
Building such integrated CRM systems successfully cannot be a matter for the IT group alone; it must involve the highest executive involvement and integration with overall enterprise business strategy. Why? Because a complete solution will touch nearly every major domain of an enterprise.
CRM is a team sport, so it must be played that way. To be successful, it must have executive power connecting the islands of customer data across multiple functional or divisional groups. CRM must be considered a core part of overall company strategy and addressed with personal responsibility for its proper implementation. Division managers must understand its importance and how their proactive role in integrating a real-time, multi-channel CRM suite will improve the quality of customer loyalty and sales. This degree of oversight will dramatically enhance the success of CRM deployment and ensure long-term increases in customer satisfaction.
Multi-channel CRM means more than an efficient, complete method of connecting with customers. It translates to a closer customer relationship when companies can prove that they know customers' needs as quickly as they emerge. In the end, the real winners will be the customers, who will receive world-class support for their business. They will reward vendors with loyalty and long-term sales that sustain a company for reliable growth and value.
eConvergent provides CRM infrastructure.