Face-off: Can CRM win and retain loyal, repeat customers?

By P.J. Connolly, InfoWorld |  Networking

That's why the vast majority of respondents to the InfoWorld CRM Survey, almost 78 percent, rate CRM as critically important to their business.


P.J., you may wonder what these businesspeople know that you don't. If they took your advice, they'd go back to their 132-column green-bar printouts because CRM isn't yet paying its own way.


Is CRM a beastly undertaking? You bet. Every company presents a different combination of client and back-end applications. CRM must gather data from all of these applications, process it, and feed it back to reps and managers. A CRM project can't disrupt existing operations, and what's more, it must usually make use of resources already in place. Forty percent of our survey respondents say they want an integrated, single-vendor solution. Sixty-nine percent rated integration with existing systems as critical or very important. And 63 percent want the flexibility of a Web-based front end. Companies know CRM is a huge undertaking, and our survey shows that they are struggling to get it done. Why invest all that effort? Because CRM is a necessity.


Let's say I run a company that sells some kind of hard goods. No matter what I do, some percentage of telephone, fax, and Web orders will generate customer service requests via phone calls and e-mails. Some requests are easy to satisfy, such as those that seek to cancel an order before it ships.


Most others, including requests that involve credits or returns, must be adjudicated. I can't trust my front line reps with those decisions. I look ahead five years and see that I'll have to hire people with even less experience to work my phones. I need a system that helps my reps make a quick decision, the way finance company systems decide instantly whether to grant credit to someone.


A well-connected CRM system can instantly sift through all the business factors that go into granting a customer request. Does a particular customer submit an inordinate number of returns? Has the product given other customers problems? Does a pattern of orders and credit requests suggest fraud?


I expect my CRM system to allow me to tune the business rules it uses to weigh customer requests. Ideally, the system will use the data it collects to do its own tuning. When it is fully operational, CRM will increase the capacity of my call center, cement long-term relationships with good customers, and prune the bad ones from my rolls. No system can remove people from the equation. But a good system will give my reps more power to do their jobs well.


CRM isn't a shrink-wrapped, overnight implementation. It's a complicated technical and cultural migration. Technically, businesses are wiring their back-office and front-end systems together so that a CRM solution can siphon data from all of them. Culturally, businesses are nudging their staffs toward sharing information with each other.

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