CRM Requires a Full Customer View

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The single customer view remains a myth. While companies move to the Web, gaining additional means of promoting and acquiring customers, they continue with varying degrees of success to combine information from the existing channels. There is hope, though; customer interactions can be captured, stored in a database and matched to other interactions at various touch points.


Not so long ago, you could walk into the local department store and buy clothes and accessories for your mother or a friend with the assistance of a sales representative who knew who you were and information including sizes, appropriate colors, preferred scents, etc. Those were the good old days, right?


Today, if you fly first-class regularly, it's likely that the flight attendant knows who you are, your destination, what connections you have to make and even what rental car company you will use, regardless of how you bought your ticket. The rental car agent recommends and "sees" changes you make to your profile online the moment you make them. The hotel has left a box of candy and a personalized note in your room awaiting your arrival to thank you for returning there to stay, even though you booked this room on the Web and your previous stay was booked through your corporate travel agent. The good old days are back!


The challenge can be met. Though few companies are positioned to identify every interaction with a customer or prospect, most have begun the process. The growth of preferred-customer programs in every business from groceries to travel is evidence of this.


In fact, identifying customers at the point of purchase is one of the primary challenges for retail businesses trying to take advantage of customer information. Successful companies either have identified appropriate incentives for customers to enroll and use their preferred-customer programs, or they have begun mining the wealth of information available through the credit card transaction, often working in concert with their financial services provider.


Whether it is through membership or based on financial transactions, linking store sales to marketing activities and other sales channels requires separate processing. Existing point-of-sale systems can capture customer information, but processing must be performed in a separate database. A customer/marketing database system is usually developed as a separate system (often hosted by an outside vendor) receiving information from all of the operational sales systems.


E-commerce provides the opportunity to capture detailed information on customer interaction. If your Web site provides a rich experience for your customers, it should provide a rich experience for marketers. Often though, the exigencies of managing the basic transaction, handling payment and shipping details overwhelm the resources dedicated to managing the Web channel for a company. When this happens, data may be captured and stored, but rarely are in usable form for a true customer relationship management experience.


When data are captured from the Web customer interaction, what kind are valuable and what can be retained? Start with "how did they get here?" Known to technologists as the Http_Referrer data, such information provides some of the most valuable insights into the various Web-based advertising mechanisms and their effectiveness. Banner ads, reference sites, e-mail campaigns and other advertising activities can be measured by recording the site your customer was on immediately before entering yours.


Once on a site, customers may search for what they want, or wander the virtual aisles in search of their particular items of interest. Though extensive navigation patterns may provide more data than anyone is prepared to digest, keywords used in searches along with the total amount of time spent on any given aisle does provide actionable information.


Ultimately, discovering specifically who the customer is, what he has purchased previously and what information he has received is the key to unlocking the gold. There is only one way to discover this - ask! To develop a CRM process, you must identify who you are interacting with early in the relationship. When an unidentified customer enters, the site, marketing-friendly sites will ask for name, address and opt-in information at a minimum. This information can be matched immediately with existing customer data to identify and reward loyal customers, while offering special pathways and incentives for the brand-new customer.


Once a customer is identified, subsequent visits can be simplified by using a cookie. (Cookies are tiny files left on a customer's computer to facilitate subsequent interactions.) However, cookies do not work in every instance, but information contained in the cookie can be passed directly to the user in a variety of formats, including e-mail. With a PIN and/or a login, a customer can get special treatment, and marketers can get special information regardless of a user's computer, or its configuration.


While the Web can be a rich source of customer interaction, other channels also provide a great deal of information to the savvy marketer. Inbound calls received by customer service representatives, help desk personnel or telemarketers can generate valuable nuggets of information. Matching that information to other data nuggets can be performed with the same information captured from a Web interaction -- name, address and opt-in information.


Existing information on a customer can be presented to the person on the phone with the customer allowing the interaction to expand. In the extreme, the telemarketer or customer service representative can use the presence of Web data to enrich the interaction by "pushing" product and sales information onto the customer's browser while continuing a telephone dialogue. Follow-up e-mail campaigns can provide a way to extend the customer interaction even after the fact.


When information is compared across channels, a more complete picture of the customer emerges. Unfortunately, it is rare that the systems supporting telemarketing, and those supporting e-commerce and in-store sales, use the same database. The real challenge lies in designing a database that can combine information on customers at a high level, while allowing the nuances of the various channels to enrich contact data at a detail level.


Companies that are successful in applying CRM will meet the challenges of multichannel sales and marketing by capturing information across the various customer touch points and integrating that information into the marketing/sales process. Their representatives will be smarter, wiser and better armed to meet the needs of their customers regardless of where the customer chooses to meet them.


• Dino Capone is chief technology officer at Marketing Communication Systems, Ivyland, PA. Reach him at dcapone@ccgroupnet.com.
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