Opinion: Asking the simple questions

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The dawn of CRM brought prophecies of seamless customer interaction, satisfaction and understanding. The rationale was sound and significant investment has been made by many customer-centric organisations to ensure that technology plays its part in putting the customer first. A dashboard of customer information now helps to drive sales and marketing strategies, keeps businesses attuned to customers wants and needs, and refines products and services accordingly.

The first time Amazon.com offered me a discount on a book that it thought might be of interest, I was impressed. The CRM engine was working. Just like the first time I called the customer service centre at my bank and the helpful voice at the end of the phone knew more about my account history than me. Again, the CRM cogs were turning.

The interesting point about these once enlightening experiences is that they are now commonplace. If the call centre can't get me the information I need instantly, I feel short changed. If Amazon.com sends me offers for books I don't read, it's another mail for the trash folder. Customers are a demanding bunch. So, the question is: what can businesses do now to take CRM to the next level?

In order to answer that question we need to look at the root of the problem. CRM is built on vast quantities of data. With enough power and resource, many vendors promise to crunch their way through the hurdles presented by terabytes of information held on incompatible data stores running across disparate systems - budget permitting. A large organisation may have teams of people processing data to build profiles and turn customer information into something meaningful that can be pushed back into the business. Doesn't this seem a little 'clunky' for the assumed capabilities of today's CRM applications?

CRM is great at capturing information, but the logjam comes at the analysis stage. Business intelligence analysts have to herd data like cattle into meaningful groups, round them up and ship them out in a digestible format. This takes time, considerable effort and resource and, ironically, is undertaken by people who don't interface with customers. The secret to effective CRM is putting relevant information in the hands of the people who need it, when they need it. Is it therefore a case of more power, more processes and more resource? Not necessarily

Currently, to run any kind of meaningful query on a given set of data requires significant time - hours, rather than minutes and seconds - and often produces shaky results. Working within these constraints, it is impossible for spontaneous questions to be asked in real time. Yet, in order to be truly effective, especially at the coalface of customer relations, this is exactly the quality and efficiency of data delivery that is needed. Putting real-time, high value customer information in the lap of 'customer people' takes CRM to the next level, but achieving this kind of delivery is something that still puzzles most organisations.

It isn't hard to see why this kind of service is difficult to realise. Getting packaged information on the fly for a single identity or account number, running through millions of lines of 'un-herded' data and retrieving meaningful information is a tough call. It's not just about finding a needle in a haystack; you've got to make a tailored suit on the way back.

The challenge is to alter the way that data is staged and prepared for CRM personnel. Transforming multiple complex databases and reassembling them into a manageable format for interrogation (data warehousing) is tried and tested, but very slow. This methodology will never be able to deliver the kind of service needed for spontaneous CRM ad hoc enquiries.

Arguably there are some businesses that have, at a cost, raised the CRM stakes with bespoke solutions in this area. However, if you were to throw a strategic anomaly into the back office, such as a company merger or acquisition, even the CRM premiere league would struggle to deliver a three dimensional CRM strategy without considerable re-engineering. A stack of different data changes the rules, mixes the coordinates and confuses even the most intelligent querying engine.

By providing high performance and broader indexing capabilities, without the need for increased power or infrastructure, we can begin to achieve the information efficiencies needed to make the next step in CRM a reality. The solution is not more power, more storage or bigger data warehouses. E-business has tackled the problems of data management, processing and access. Now the need is to put all this information in the hands of business users with technology that works in plain English to solve a business problem, following a thought process rather than a set of pre-defined rules. With CRM, this level of manageability is critical. IT departments have to control the process, but business users need to manage the information.

The move towards business applications for business people continues to grow, but needs to keep driving forward. A 'dashboard' approach to managing CRM is all well and good, but it is often limited in what it can deliver, despite the huge amount of resources working away behind the scenes. As customers become more demanding, so do companies in their need for greater value from the huge vaults of information sat across the business. With CRM, what we have to do now is look beyond the dashboard, speed up the engine, deliver better business information and put the driver in complete control.

Mark Mclellan is Co-Founder and Director of Product Strategy, at Aruna. Aruna. Aruna provides an information delivery platform enabling business users to solve critical business problems themselves through rapid interaction with their corporate data. For more information on the company please visit www.arunasoftware.com or contact Kieran Kilmartin at Aruna on 020 7902 5353


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