Opinion: Don't go the way of Woolworth's - focus on workflow

13th Mar 2009

With Woolworth's reaching the end of the road, the high street is now speculating who's next for the chop. So how can a focus on workflow improve customer service and steer your firm clear of Woolworth's fate?

By Jason Nash, Microsoft Business Solutions

It might have seemed unthinkable at one point, but the end of 2008 saw the end of Woolworth's. A familiar sight on the high streets of the UK for so long, the firm became on the first high-profile retail sector victims of the recession. Tragically it was almost certainly the first. The past few weeks have seen rumours and speculation grow as to 'who will be next?'.

"An effectively designed and implemented workflow can assist in making the customer experience aspire to the 'affordable luxury' end of the scale."

Jason Nash, Microsoft Business Solutions

While it's impossible to make accurate predictions, it's possible to generalise and suggest that it will be firms which are unable to offer an individual customer experience. One complaint levelled at Woolworth's in recent years was the inability to define what it was that it actually did! What was the Woolworth's unique identifier that was supposed to bring customers in? When there is less money to go around and customers are being more selective in their spending, then they will choose to go where they can receive the best and most compelling customer experience.

The sensible businesses – the ones who are thinking of 'the day after the recession' – are now thinking about how to enhance the customer experience. At the top end, there are firms who aspire to achieve 'affordable luxury'. Perhaps the most notable example of this is Apple, whose product line is more expensive than competitors, but carries a premium which customers are prepared to pay. Unlike Woolworth's, customers have a very clear idea of why they're popping into an Apple Store!

So what does this have to do with CRM? Well, everything of course. CRM is – at one basic level – about enabling companies to do and achieve more with less. That should go without saying. What is often overlooked however is the importance of workflow, a term bandied around a lot in IT circles, but all too often not fully understood. This is the proverbial trick waiting to be missed!


Again using a basic interpretation, workflow is what you need to get your software product to do something for you automatically rather than having to have a human being intervene manually. The problem is that a lot of IT systems are put in are capable of doing handling workflow but because the project has been rolled out on a shoestring – and let's face it, that's likely to become an increasingly common scenario – and as such has not been configured to meet the needs of the organisation. So specific processes that would be useful to the company and help to beef up the bottom line by freeing up staff to focus on more customer-centric activities are not addressed.

"CRM is – at one basic level – about enabling companies to do and achieve more with less."

An effectively designed and implemented workflow can assist in making the customer experience aspire to the 'affordable luxury' end of the scale. For example, imagine a workflow that kicks in once the customer service or sales representative hits the button that signifies the sale has been completed. The workflow triggers the system to send a thank you email to the customer. Then a week later, a second email is sent to follow-up on the sale and check that there are no problems and enquire if there are any other actions that need to be taken or any other help that can be provided.

A response to this inquiry will of course potentially lead to cross-sell or upsell opportunities. If it does elicit a promising response, then 30 days later the system might invite a customer to a sales or promotional event on how to get the best out of the product. And so it continues. Messages can be sent automatically as appropriate and when most appropriate without manual intervention. For example, two years after the initial purchase an email can be sent advising the customer of the benefits of upgrading to the latest version of the product.

Of course, none of this removes the need for human beings. Useful and helpful human interaction is typically cited as one of the pre-requisites for a good customer experience. A totally impersonal, automated interaction is unlikely to satisfy this need. But the utilisation of appropriate workflow technologies can provide a powerful tool that can be turned to good use by organisations seeking to create or maintain an individualised customer experience that will keep customers engaged in even the most difficult of economic circumstances.

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By mike riddell1
15th Apr 2009 15:19

There are lots of businesses that need to re-invent their product, as well as their operational processes. It's simply a question of modernising which Woolies clearly didn't do. Shopping centres need modernising too, so that the "customer" experience is as good as the competition (internet and supermarkets) where the "user" experience is compelling.

If you can invent a workflow solution for those beasts, then twitter my homepage (@mikeriddell62) as there are 2000 centres up and down the UK alone that need to modernise their product and process of operation.

Best wishes, Mike Riddell (

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