OPINION

Forging Strong Links in Your Customer Interaction Chains

What’s the ultimate goal of CRM? As much as I and others of my ilk might talk about the positive interactions, good feelings and peer-to-peer relationships that result when CRM is done well, they’re just happy means to an end. The end is, and always will be, inflating the bottom line.

While a lot of executives have no problem tracing this A-to-Z line when it comes to deciding to launch or revamp a CRM strategy, there are a lot of letters along the way where those efforts can run hard aground.

While a CRM strategy is important, it’s also vital to think of CRM as a chain of activities, each with an impact on customer relationships and each with an impact on the activities that follow it. Think of it like the chain of evidence in a criminal case — for the whole thing to hang together, there can’t be any breaks in the chain.

Weak Links

Here’s what I mean: A customer relationship might start with the collection of a lead somewhere — registration on a Web form, attendance at an event, acquisition through a list, and so on. Next, there must be an action — typically, the population of a set of fields in CRM with this data. If that action has a problem — like, a phone number entered incorrectly — then BANG! The chain has been broken for that customer.

There are plenty of places where the chain can break. During the lead management process, a misguided scoring system or routing process can break the chain. From there, sales has plenty of opportunities to break the chain, and even after a sale is made, issues around contract signing can be a weak link.

Next, you have the delivery process — not thought of as part of the CRM strategy, generally, but another opportunity to expose breaks in this sequence of internal and external activities.

Long Chains

After the sale, the chain continues with service and support, and marketing. Ideally, your chain of events is a long one, with repeat sales, marketing efforts to keep customers loyal, and opportunities to deepen and extend the relationship. It’s a single sequence of small but critical events.

The traditional CRM part of this has been discussed at great depth. But in order for CRM to be effective, you need to make the jump from data to actions — and that’s where the overlooked pitfalls occur. The chain can break for reasons that your CRM strategy can’t include. Those reasons range from production issues to a mismanaged call center to customer-facing employees who aren’t good at their jobs.

These things can’t be factored into a CRM strategy as you draw it up on paper, but they have a marked impact on the ultimate effectiveness of your customer relationship management efforts.

Closing the Loop

So here’s the challenge: Do you understand what each link in your CRM chain is — and if you’re a CRM decision maker, do you understand the links that are not under your control? Do you have the ability to work with managers who oversee those links — which they may not perceive as critical to your CRM activities — and who may not appreciate the ways they may undo activities farther down the chain?

Do you have a clear understanding of how the chain may re-attach itself to close the loop? In other words, connect from service or marketing back to sales for repeat business? And don’t forget your own links in the chain — those involved in your CRM processes. Are they strong, or have they failed in the past? And can you fix them with the technology and the processes you have in place?

One of the nice things about looking at your CRM process this way is that it mirrors how your customers view your company — through a sequence of interactions, events and responses. If you can envision how your CRM processes look to customers and anticipate where the chain may come unlinked, you’ll have a much better chance of correcting those breaks and keeping those customers connected to your business.

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz blogs about CRM at the CRM Outsiders. He has been a technology journalist for 17 years and has immersed himself in the world of CRM since 2006. When he's not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he's wearing his airplane geek hat; he's written three books on World War II aviation.

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