Making the Customer King

By Eugene Grygo, InfoWorld |  Software

Although in theory it's a time of universal goodwill, the holiday shopping season is a battleground for established retailers and fledgling e-tailers. Whether you are selling books and $4,000 skirts online or trying to figure out what goods and services your business partners need and when they must have them, your customers' expectations are going to be high and unmerciful. Companies that fail to put into action their rhetoric about transforming themselves into customer-centric enterprises will suffer the consequences: Competition is only a click or a call away. And customer loyalty for all companies comes at a high price, no matter what time of year it is.

In the grand scheme of things, that price will be putting customer concerns at the heart of everything your company does, particularly for those CTOs charged with transforming their business into a competitor in the Internet economy. This customer-centric push will permeate all industries and most enterprises, according to analysts and industry observers.

"I think everyone has to worry about it, because I think the Internet in particular has raised the awareness and sophistication of customers," says Steve Bonadio, a CRM (customer relationship management) analyst at MetaGroup, based in Stamford, Conn. "I think across all industries companies have to start thinking about this. How quickly they need to act is going to be very dependent upon competitive factors in the marketplace."

The CTO will play a key role in keeping the enterprise focused on customers in spite of the forces that may distract it, say CTOs and other IT executives. This charter has to be consistent across all of the teams and all of the departments that interact with customers.

Once the internal realignment has been made, the shift to a customer-centric approach will lead to refocused, better-targeted and -integrated marketing and merchandising -- and data warehouse systems that "allow you to provide the merchandise that people really want to buy," says Robert Dykman, CTO of Saks Direct, the New York-based e-commerce operation for Saks Fifth Avenue, a spin-off of Saks, that will launch during the first half of 2001.

Terry Milholland, CTO and CIO of Electronic Data Systems (EDS), in Plano, Texas, adds that most companies have jumped on the CRM bandwagon much as they did with ERP (enterprise resource planning), but that making a customer-centric shift takes more than that.

"It's the information surrounding the client that will drive the business, and a lot of companies don't recognize the value of that information," Milholland says. "A lot of them have latched on to CRM products, but it goes much deeper than that. You have to focus on the customer to begin with, and that's a process."

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