Half a century ago, customer relationship management (CRM) was a straightforward affair: when someone walked into a store in their town, the owner recognised them, said ‘hello’ and then tried to solve their problems or help them find what they needed. In more recent decades, CRM has harnessed technology – starting with mainframe computers in the 1970s and moving on to Windows-based PCs in the 1980s – to help companies gain a complete view of their customer interactions and ultimately provide a better customer experience.
Today, we live in an era of cloud-based, mobile technology – smartphones, wearables, subscription-based entertainment, and an endless selection of apps have changed how we work, play and stay in touch. Customer expectations have changed: users in the business world now want the same level of service they enjoy as a consumer. Every business and industry is grappling with how to meet these soaring expectations. One suggestion is that CRM must go back to the future with the aim of regaining the personal touch once delivered by the local shop manager.
“CRM has always been about knowing as much as possible about your customers in order to provide the best possible service,” explains Renzo Taal, senior vice-president Northern Europe at Salesforce. “But as technology has evolved, so have the capabilities and character of CRM. We have moved from systems of record to systems of engagement, and now we are moving towards systems of intelligence. For a business to succeed, people across the organisation – whether in HR, sales, marketing finance or product development – need to be able to access timely insights that inform real-time action.”
In practical terms, effective CRM means that when a customer gets in touch with a company by phone, email or social media, whoever deals with that customer is familiar with their needs. “There’s nothing more annoying than speaking to a company that you’ve had a relationship with for years and having to explain to their representative the nature of that relationship,” says Taal. “It doesn’t have to be that way. Effective CRM would enable a bank, for example, to know your background and what products and services you use. Great CRM would ensure the representative understands the customer’s goals and is able to proactively suggest ways that the bank could help them.”
Two important trends have emerged in recent years to help companies get closer to their customers – social media and online communities. “Social media offers a unique way for companies to listen to their customers and help them,” says Taal. “The airline KLM is one of the greatest success stories in this regard. Interactions run from the straightforward: ‘how much luggage can I take on my flight?’ to the complex: ‘how can I still get to my destination if my connecting flight is delayed?’ It’s also possible to check in for your flight via Facebook Messenger. ”
Social media can also be used for product feedback. ”Philips has an extensive social media listening programme that ensures it understands how its customers use its products and the challenges – and joys – they experience,” says Taal. “That allows them to build better products in the future and even discuss the kinds of features that customers want to see.” Philips has also used social media to create communities connecting diabetes patients, caregivers and health professionals 24 hours a day. “And in the Netherlands, PostNL’s mailmen use social media to provide information to municipalities about things that need fixing on the street,” notes Taal.
Taal says that some social media responses can be automated – KLM often sends proactive messages, reminding people to pack a T-shirt because the weather at their destination is unseasonably warm, for example. “However, humans are essential for social media because judgement is required and because customers really value the fact that there is a real person answering their queries on a one-to-one basis,” he notes.
While such an approach sounds labour intensive, Taal says it is worth it: “There are huge disruptions affecting companies’ business models. Successful companies will respond by using technology to interact with customers across their ecosystem and deliver a personalised one-to-one customer journey: a Gartner study showed that 89% believe that customer experience will be their primary basis for competition.”
Connecting with customers in an omni-channel world – with interaction via social media, online communities, mobile devices, face-to-face and many other ways – requires advanced technology and analytics, accessed via the cloud. However, human capabilities, including inter-personal skills and the ability to place information in a broader context, are at the heart of contemporary CRM. “The human aspect of connecting to customers is becoming more, not less, important because while the technology that underpins that interaction is more complex, ubiquitous and seamless, it is ultimately only there to enable the journey the customer takes, which is a human one.”