Conduct the Conversations on Customers' Terms

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Author's Note: The text of this article is based on a presentation originally scheduled to occur at the Seattle net.Marketing conference in February. The session, "Fulfilling the Promise: Incorporating eCRM into Your Strategy," never happened due to the earthquake that ended the conference.

The first thing that struck me as I prepared for the session was how much of a misnomer its title represented. We have to stop thinking that the practice of what we call CRM can be molded or modified just to fit into Internet business models. There is no such thing as "e"-CRM. It is ridiculous -- almost absurd -- to think that only certain aspects of customer relationship management, in this case the "electronic" ones, can be isolated and given their own label.

With the relative success being realized by traditional organizations leveraging their online presence, we are seeing, proved out in the marketplace, that CRM strategy needs to be integrated -- offline and online -- to realize optimal results. I am not implying that the Internet has not profoundly affected how we establish, nurture and profit from our customer relationships. It has. CRM is still CRM, no matter what we call it.

We hear the buzzwords du jour: direct marketing; learning relationships; database marketing; segment of one; permission marketing; customer interaction policies; etc. Any of these terms are nothing more than slogans or words on paper if they are not substantially backed up. To a large extent, this means serving customers the way they want to be served. This includes reacting as customers keep changing their minds and contacting us by multiple channels (via mail order or phone or the Web site). Customers expects a surprising level of service that few organizations realize.

The term "conversational marketing" articulates a concept toward which we should all strive. Great marketers will be the ones that can initiate a dialogue with their customers and continue that conversation across every touch point that customers decide to use when interacting with the company. Whenever and wherever a customer or prospect chooses to engage with you, it is incumbent on you to keep that conversation going. As long as you are communicating, that customer or prospect is yours. A quick or sure-fire way to stop that conversation is to frustrate that customer. The right hand has to know what the left hand is doing.

Your call center operators need to know what offer was made to Joe Smith in yesterday's e-mail blast ... and whether he responded. And what exclusive deal Mary Jones was presented with when she visited the Web site last week. And what deal her cousin was presented with when she visited the Web site yesterday. In real time. On their terms. When they want to deal with you. The customer is in control. You need to know what you have told your customers and how each individual customer is or is not reacting to those offers. You must do it, or you will lose them.

It can be done and it must be done. A recent report by GartnerGroup, Stamford, CT (Gartner Insight, Vol.3, Issue #1 -- February 2001) identified the following executive trends and a seemingly conflicting overall market trend emerging in the CRM space:

• CRM initiatives lead to improved profits and higher stock prices.

• CEOs are shifting strategic emphasis toward customer intimacy (and away from product excellence or operational efficiency).

• Customer expectations are driving the adoption of new channels quickly, yet poor implementation is lowering customer satisfaction and loyalty.

It is a race to get to market as quickly as possible, and it is undercutting the value that these initiatives are meant to provide.

Take note of the following catchphrases: online, the customer is in control; online, your competitor is just a click away; the Internet affords the customer infinite opportunities to shop around and get the best deal. All this is true -- but the "old rules" still apply. They just need to be implemented differently to leverage this new medium. Customers still need know who you are and what you offer. They still need to convert from prospect status to customer status. Once they make that first purchase transaction with you, development and retention programs need to encourage repeat transactions, more profitable interactions, and ultimately foster loyalty and evangelism.

The wild card now is that finally, technologies exist to put some teeth into the concepts those earlier buzzwords represent -- concepts that customers now demand.

Coordinating and synchronizing, each of these touch points (direct mail; direct e-mail; Web site; toll-free number; brick and mortar), takes a corporate commitment to infrastructure. It is no short order to get all these channels saying the same thing, learning at the same time and adjusting (offers or messages) in real-time. Each channel demands its own optimized data mart, which, by definition, will not be optimized for any other channel. Yet they all need to share and exchange data, to perpetuate this learning machine that we are trying to become.

The good news is that there are vendors in this space making moves and developing products that are enabling conversational marketing:

• E.piphany offers an Analytic Platform to help deliver the holistic view of the customer, which, in turn, drives call center applications or drives real-time personalization on the Web; it also drives campaign management, whether traditional direct marketing or online via its Emailer module.

• Vignette, offers V/5 for complete Web interaction management and recently released its RMS server for the customer-centric view, and managing direct and e-mail interaction. Plus it launched a product called eIntegrate to bring together other interactions like call center data or even point of sale data for retail stores.

• There is a host of middleware companies like Oberon and BEA that are creating applications to allow best-of-breed point solutions to communicate with each other (e.g., E.piphany's AP with a Siebel call center application and ATG Dynamo for content management).

Customers expect your systems to communicate with each other and that expectation will soon become a requirement for doing business. While product superiority will continue to be highly valued, the depth and meaningfulness of your conversations with your customers -- on their terms -- will cement their loyalty with you.

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