2006 - Company (Relationship??) Management

14th Dec 2005

Ten past nine on a Sunday morning, a rich gold light pours into the cosy warmth of my dining room, frosted red twigs and evergreen shimmer outside the window, the sky is azure blue and the coffee smells good – I anticipate the pleasures of Christmas. "Humph," says my suddenly animated husband, pushing his newspaper at me, "we ought to try that." The headline shouts disharmony, 'The two keys that almost always put you on to a real person'; above is an oversized picture of a telephone zero and hash key, below it a list of the 'cheat codes' for major UK companies, Comet, Dell, Egg, Halifax, Sky, Tesco, O2, American Express, the list goes on with a promise that the major US companies can be found on

I smile feeling vaguely pleased, revenge at last for the hours of wasted time and temperature raising annoyance. How many times was that feeling replicated last Sunday morning across the UK? And the hero of the story? An American computer hacker called Paul English who is compiling lists of ways to override IVR systems in the US and UK in order to get straight through to a real person. Of course, whether that person will be able to really help you, is another matter. But that's not the point - the system can be beaten! It’s a start.

Miss-Match Between Intent and Reality

Now given my trade I have to ask myself just what is going on? Corporate interest in customer experience is huge. In the last 3 weeks alone I have attended a lavish IBM/Ogilvy dinner with a number of marketing 'big wigs' from major companies discussing how they are improving customer experience: been party to a well attended research briefing for the Financial Services fraternity on the state of play of Treating Customers Fairly (the Financial Services Authority’s drive to improve customer care): and customer experience consultants are telling me business is booming. Yet customer frustration has reached such a pitch that they/we are declaring war on the corporate world. Why is there such a catastrophic miss-match between intent and reality? (see Mind the empathy gap!).

Maybe Stuart and I should change sides and push for renaming CRM, 'Company Relationship Management'. However, I suspect customers would drop the relationship and just call it Company Management!! Indeed, the increasing number of rants on the site against various companies suggests we are already moving that way. (see The Customer is Always Right)

Green Shoots in an Icy Winter

But, wait, there is many a true word spoken in jest. As Narnia* hits our screens with its story of the green shoots of altruistic spring, thrusting into the icy, self serving domain of the all powerful White Witch, maybe its time we noticed the green shoots of company management sprouting in the hearts of customers, as we munch on our corporate Turkish Delight.

Only this week I was alerted to a book which will be out in 2006 on how customers should manage companies to get value out of them – hopefully full of further tips on breaking through defence shields. Alan Mitchell and Iain Henderson’s recent article on personal knowledge banks – where customers keep control of their own data in data stores and give permission to companies to access certain parts of it - is attracting a lot of interest from service suppliers. (full article due on the CMC in January, here are some appetizers: Personal Knowledge Banks to Kill off CRM and Consumer Managed Data) And an increasing number of business customers are including questions like "Is there a process by which you assign the importance of client relationships?" and "How can you demonstrate your commitment to our goals?", in their invitations to tender. Green shoots indeed.

Avoid Terrorists in a Community

This time last year I forecast that 2005 would be the year of the customer community, (see 2005 – The Year of The Customer Community) and indeed there has been a surge of interest from major companies in this means of customer 'engagement'. Consultants, whose skill was in building staff communities, have moved their focus to the customer kind. But before we all get hung up with customer communities, co-creation and collaboration why don’t we do what Jo Thomson from the Procter Consultancy advises in her work training call centre staff, and get the basics right first. Because if we don’t we may well find our 'communities' over run with what Moria Clark from Henley Management College calls customer terrorists – the opposite of the valuable advocates we are trying to achieve.

We must start listening to customers, if we don’t then customers will band increasingly together – as they already are. They will information share and problem solve between themselves as blogs and workspaces increasingly allow them to do (see Measuring the Influence of Bloggers on Corporate Reputation). Word of mouth is changing the balance of power, and, according to Nigel Howlett of OgilvyOne, the very essence of the marketing model.

Customer Battles or Customer Engagement?

So, in 2006 I believe we may well see customers fighting back and managing us. If we don’t want a full scale war, then maybe its time we 'engaged with customers' as Carlson Marketing's President Jose Ferrao puts it. The Marketing Directors at the IBM debate took the same view; we need to 'make friends with customers' said one. They generally felt that price competition was going no where, the battle to improve operational productivity was won, (a view economists would support), and so the competitive front line is now customer development – but how many realize they will be quelling an uprising, rather than herding sheep.

To that end I asked a number of CRM practitioners and experts what improving customer engagement would mean:-

"That companies become 'engaging' (like a film can be engaging) so that an interaction is wanted and is of consequence and depth," said Bryan Foss, ex Head of Financial Services at IBM and now partner in Foss and Stone Marketing. We all warm to engaging personalities, so why not engaging companies.

Harold Russell from Blueprinting Excellence looked at it from the customer’s viewpoint. "For the customer," he says, "that means;

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By AnonymousUser
15th Dec 2005 16:05


A very good article on some of the tentative changes that are happening in CRM at the moment. I say tentative because we are not really sure what will happen. Indeed, we may not even really be sure until long after it has happened!

Whilst I agree with you completely about the increased interest in different forms of Customer Managed Relationships, I think we must be careful not to confuse the "heat" from the squeeky wheels with any signs of "light" with which to illuminate any changes happening in CRM.

Sure, many companies' processes are one-sided (just hand over your cash and go away), broken (if you want to speak to a customer service representative, please press the key closest to the square root of Avogadros Number), unfair (only €19.95 for new customers, €99.95 for existing ones) or just plan stupid (too many to choose from!), but companies still hold most of the product, customer and financial cards.

As your article points out, there is much work to be done to make companies "simply better", but I am still far from being convinced that customers (or the crop of intermediaries that have sprung up out of nowhere to serve them) would do a better job if they were to wrest control from companies.

I see much more future in market forces (helped by regulators where appropriate) driving companies to clean up their act, in companies collaborating with customers to deliver business innovations and in the continual reinvention of business by new entrants setting higher standards. Market economies have long had this uncanny knack of out-performing all kinds of controlled economies. Just ask the French!

At the end of the day it all comes down to understanding the interplay of four factors: CUSTOMERS and their expected outcomes, VALUE and how it is created, CAPABILITIES which alow companies to deliver both and THE CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE where all of this takes place. We may be seeing a shift in the relative importance of these factors, but as I said, I am far from convinced.

Graham Hill
Indepndent Management Consultant

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By Jeremy Cox
09th Jan 2006 16:04

On one side there are marketeers helping firms develop their brands or brand promise. On the other there are lots of software companies supported by systems integrators or resellers pushing CRM software and somewhere in the middle is the voice of common sense which realises that to fulfill the brand promise the customer experience must be at least equal to it.

As for the knowledge bank stuff all very brave new world, but there is some basic coordination of thinking and activity that needs to take place and which will generate a superior customer experience and value, long before this takes root (if it ever will) and I expect words like:

''integrated, collaborative, insight, value'' to be all the rage in 2006

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