If you do not engage your customers in dialogue, your competitors will, says Vladimir Dimitroff.
The learning relationship
OK, you have decided to be customer-centric. Your organisation has strategies, plans, budgets and impressive CRM projects. You may have already built a capacity to identify each individual customer at every touch point. Most probably you have also segmented your customer base and now understand how customer groups differ from each other. You are 'doing CRM' - or are you? Where is the R of the ubiquitous acronym, that elusive relationship that we strive to build and grow?
A relationship only happens through repeated interaction. The dynamics and quality of such interaction determine the quality of the relationship. And every time you interact with a customer, information is exchanged - which can be the basis for an increasingly intimate knowledge, if it is used properly. From promotional to point-of-sale to customer care interactions: they all add little pieces to the jigsaw puzzle of a customer's portrait.
As we learn more and more of the customer's needs and preferences (and react accordingly), they become entangled with us. They have invested time and effort to learn about your organisation, but more importantly they have taught you about themselves and their preferences. The more you respond to this learning, the less likely the customer is to start all this from scratch, which is inevitable if they should switch to your competitor.
More than one way
Interactions vary, but, more often than not, they involve communications. For more than a century the art and science of marketing communication was built and perfected predominantly around a broadcast, one-way model. Media evolved from hand-written notice boards to satellite television, and message styles and sophistication evolved too. But it was always us telling them what they 'want' to buy. Salesmen were taught to listen more than they speak but no real dialogue occurred, as the customer voice was drowned out by ever-louder the sales messages.
Today the balance of power is shifting irreversibly as a result of the information revolution. Customers are no longer content to just listen, and to have a relationship with them we have to engage in dialogue. The question is: what is the best medium? The most appropriate mode and channel to communicate? There is no single answer. Face to face meetings are probably the most interactive, but happen to be the most expensive, too. Telephone is often cheaper, but globalisation has created too many long-distance customers, adding call costs to the cost of the live person that handles the call. Cheaper methods like interactive voice response and automated e-mail may not have enough human touch required for an intimate relationship. The web has high interactivity and low cost, yet it may not be universally applicable, despite new incarnations like self-service kiosks, web-enabled ATMs, WAP and G3 mobile applications.
The best strategy is to create multi-channel capability and maintain a balanced mix of communication channels, allowing customers to choose the channel of their preference, while tactfully encouraging them towards those that also make economic sense for the company. The economies should be, after all, to the customers' benefit!
Piece by piece
Dialogue is not an end in itself. Companies want to learn about their customers and often get too eager to bombard them with questions and questionnaires. Customers, for their part, hate questionnaires. They hate intrusion into their private lives. How do you get all the answers without irritating the customer?
The trick is to have a carefully planned information gathering strategy, often called 'drip irrigation'. Never ask too many things at once: just one or two questions per interaction. This calls for meticulous question design, to make best use of such precious opportunities. The ultimate art is creating the 'golden question' that through a single yes/no answer provides you with valuable information, e.g. qualifies a prospect. Another rule of drip irrigation is never to ask the same question twice. It happens too often that a customer sends in a coupon, or registers interest on a Web site, only to be contacted by an outbound telesales operator who asks the same questions again! Nothing could be more off-putting. Remembering past interactions and making all relevant information available at every touchpoint is an imperative that challenges the technology infrastructure. Call centres, web servers, sales front ends, and complaint systems: these should all be integrated, at least in respect of stored interaction history and customer information.
Lost in the jungle?
This usually means too many systems to integrate, too many platforms to align, and too many databases to unify. The contact management needed for sales automation, as developed in today's best front-end applications, is quite different from the contact management in helpline and support call centres. Auto response and campaign management solutions have a customer view of their own, and personalisation engines add a further unique perspective. Add to this complexity the need for multi-channel communications, and you are facing a near-impossible integration task.
Near impossible, but not quite. With the right amount of planning and some expert help from system integrators or total solution vendors, the technical aspects of this integration are fully manageable. It is more important to align business processes and resolve the associated organisation issues. A single view of the customer implies a totally new corporate culture for most companies, achievable only through resolute change management. Most important of all is the clear understanding and firm decision to bring interaction to a new level. And do it today, before the competition does. Risking repetition, I am tempted to quote the Asian proverb: "A journey of a thousand miles starts with one single step." Take the step!