Is internal CRM the key to a harmonious organisation?

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Does the thought of contacting your IT helpdesk fill you with dread? Do you walk a little quicker when you are passing the IT department? Then imagine a corporate Shangri-la where your IT team speaks the same language as the rest of the company and works in harmony with users. It needn’t be a mere dream if internal customer relationship management is to be believed. 

Whilst much emphasis is put on enabling customer-facing teams to create and maintain relationships with external clients, traditionally efforts to aid departments in working with internal customers has been limited. Accounts, IT and human resources all provide services and products to employees – ‘customers’ – within their company, to differing degrees of success.

But of all the divisions within a company, it could be argued that none is greater than the one that exists between IT and the customer-focused organisation. Surly support staff, communication difficulties and poor application delivery are just some of the problems that employees contend with from their IT team and the problem goes right to the top. If the CEO is from Mars then the CIO is from….erm, Rygel-7?

So as a potential solution to this conundrum, internal customer relationship management (I-CRM) is a concept that should be welcomed with open arms in corporate offices the world over. Michael Meltzer is managing partner at Active Management Techniques and one of only a few experts in the I-CRM arena. He explains the foundations of the approach.

“IT has no relationship with the company. It is the same for accounting departments or HR, and it all impacts the organisation. But IT is the worst of them,” he explains. “IT is populated by a number of individuals, ranging from bright, marketing-oriented individuals to the majority that are technically savvy but human relations deprived. The idea of I-CRM is to invest in education training and motivation that could move them from being merely technically-oriented to have better human skills. It operates on exactly the same way as a company moving from merely pushing a product to trying to understand the motivations of the customer to be able to sell to a need.”

Know your customer

Through a series of procedure-driven frameworks, social mapping and communications training, the suggestion is that internal customer satisfaction can be improved – to the benefit of the entire operation.

“Enterprises need to dedicate the time to training and providing communication skills to our internal help desks,” stresses Donna Fluss, president of DMG Consulting, an expert in customer-focused business strategies. “It is a lot more important than just being nice. When you get off on the wrong foot you end up on the wrong foot and things that should take a little amount of time then take a long time. Regardless of who the customer is – whether internal or external – the most important skills are communication skills and unfortunately these are lacking in IT departments. IT teams often have their perspective and they believe that you also have to understand their perspective.”

The key – as with external CRM – is to know your customer. “You have to gain a better understanding of who your client is, and you do that by building a CRM profile of them,” Meltzer continues. “Who are they? What do they do? What are their motivations? At the end of the day, I-CRM is about each department understanding their internal customer.”

But do IT teams necessarily even know there is a problem in the first place? If communication is an issue then there is a good chance that they are blissfully unaware. Fluss has first hand evidence of this.

“I was brought in by a CIO to fix an IT helpdesk and during the job I discovered that the company had conducted an internal survey in which the CIO had ranked very poorly,” she explains. “I realised that this was a political task as much as it was a reengineering task. When I went on board, I had them start to reach out and talk to the customers. Suffice to say, by the time they did the next survey he had risen from 60 percent rating to 90 percent. All they wanted the helpdesk to do was listen.”

IT departments can – and some do – periodically conduct customer satisfaction surveys, although more often than not surveys are initiated by the business at large. Surveys are easy to do, and can be very revealing. “The biggest complaints about the department tend to be that they are rude, not patient and condescending,” Fluss continues. “But these turn out to be pretty easy issues to resolve. You need to provide them with communications training and information sharing training, and teach them to put themselves in their customers’ shoes.”

As a project, the implementation of I-CRM should aim to see processes and knowledge mature in a variety of areas: IT management should evolve to understand business and then actively encourage IT staff to understand it, with a view to requiring it of all staff; similarly, business managers should improve understanding of IT; when it comes to knowledge, the aim is to mature from a formal style that is dictated from business to IT, to an informal and flexible two-way communication; there should be a shift from ad-hoc sharing of intellectual assets to formal sharing at all levels; and liaisons between IT and business staff could develop from taking place only as needed to facilitating the building of relationships.

Too good to slip away?

Yet although there is much to suggest that I-CRM could provide real value, to date there have been few – if any – advocates. Indeed, internal CRM remains in its infancy and with no high-profile pioneers providing case studies for other project managers, it could remain in nappies for some time. “The main problem has been that when you are doing external CRM, you can measure the fact that you are retaining more customers or getting more business. But there are no real metrics available to prove the value of I-CRM,” says Meltzer.

The strategy is also potentially foiled before it has even started due to the aforementioned problematic nature of the CEO-CIO relationship. This can be best demonstrated by the following scene:

CIO: It would be a great idea for some of my team to spend more time with some of your team.

CEO: Why?

CIO: (explains the concept of I-CRM)

CEO: I can see that. But if your guys are just sitting with my guys, won’t that reduce the time that I have to come to market with our new product?

CIO: Yeah but if they do they will actually better understand what you need, more clearly be able to deliver on the spec and deliver it fast.

CEO: Well I don’t pay your guys to sit and watch my guys.

(CEO exits stage right)

Nevertheless, Meltzer remains confident that the concept of I-CRM is too good to simply slip away into obscurity and he has taken heart from recent developments. “We are seeing the concept of mapping social networks in organisations start to grow in the United States. This looks at: Who knows who? What do they do? What do they want? BusinessWeek has written about it, as have several others.

He continues: “When salesmen sell to big companies they try to understand the motivations of the people they are selling to so that they can do it in the right way with the right product to meet their needs. If I am an IT department within an organisation, what should I be doing to manage my customer relationships – because they are my customers – in a more effective way? I should understand what motivates them, what solutions they need and how they like to be spoken to. Isn’t that exactly the same way you would treat an external customer?”

The next revolution may yet be waiting around the corner as organisations increasingly realise that there is another customer that is important to the business – the internal customer.

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23rd Apr 2007 15:48

1.I think the term CRM should be reserved for relationships with 'real' customers, i.e. people / organisations buying or influencing the buying of your company's products / services.
2. As for aligning IT with the business side, I believe ITIL provides an excellent framework for that. It also aims to measure key aspects from services provided by IT, e.g. accessability of the helpdesk, quality of intermediate feedback, speed to resolution, quality of the resolution, staff attitude, on time and budget and specs delivery of application development, etc.
Defining such metrics and the supporting procedures by IT provides plenty opportunities to consult with the business side on whether the metrics make actually sense to them, what the key tresholds and communication channels should be, how often they should be surveyed, etc. This puts the focus on what deliverables you want to produce for your internal 'customers', rather than just

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23rd Apr 2007 09:33

Many thanks for your comments Vince, and you raise some excellent points.

I certainly agree that it is a two-way street and the key would seem to be for the business to take a more holistic view of IT, rather than look at it as a siloed operation.

As mentioned in the feature, the business needs to understand IT in the same way that IT needs to improve understanding of the customer-facing side.

Organisations would benefit from appreciating the bigger picture in terms of not only the IT department's contribution to the internal customer, but also its role in aiding the business to meet the needs of the external customer.

But how many firms does this apply to in reality?

Neil Davey,
editor, MyCustomer.com

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