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Airing Some Gripes About the Buzzword 'CRM'

I have some nits to pick with CRM. This thing has gotten out of control. The other day, I was introducing myself in a seminar, and, when I said I consult on customer acquisition and retention, one of the people said, “Oh, do you do CRM?” Hmm … What is the answer to that question?

Well, yes, I “do CRM.” But so do we all. Managing relationships with customers is what businesspeople do to grow and thrive and to create value. And it is what marketers of all stripes do — or claim to do — as a profession. So why are we all so confused about those three little letters?

The problem here is that the term has become a buzzword. That is always a dangerous thing. It loses meaning. It becomes the subject of books, and Web sites, and seminars, and conferences and — horrors! — columns. Big shot executives hear about it, on the golf course or somewhere. They think it sounds like a good thing. And they want it.

But what is it that they want? All of a sudden, it has to become a product. In this case, a software product, one that comes surrounded by systems integrators and consultants who will help you install it.

So CRM has become software — ridiculously expensive software — designed to gather up a bunch of your sales, marketing and customer service activities and automate them. To analyze customers and prospects, to select them for communications, to plan and execute campaigns, to track customers' behavior, refine the communications, serve them well, sell them more, keep them longer — the works.

Not that marketing is not ripe for automation. The rest of the business world has been enabled with software. Look at the factory floor, with its robotics, and its just-in-time inventory systems. Look at enterprise resource planning tools for managing logistics and engineering. Automation has advanced the efficiency of finance, accounting and human resources. It was only a matter of time before marketing and sales would get a chance to work faster and cheaper. Our own shot at “better living through technology.”

To be sure, some are deeply suspicious of marketing automation. Marketing has always been as much of an art as a science, they say, and you cannot automate judgment and experience — not very well, anyway. Furthermore, there is the sneaking suspicion that the real reason management wants automation is so it can get rid of us brilliant and expensive professionals and hire monkeys to do the marketing.

But direct and database marketers are less likely to be plagued by worries like these. We have always embraced technology. We depend on it. We have even been a bit smug as enthusiasm for CRM has spread throughout the executive suite. After all, it is what we have been doing for decades — using technology to segment, to communicate, to track, to sell. Maybe, we gloat, just maybe CRM will end up giving us the resources we deserve, more respect, more clout.

But I am still annoyed. And worried. My new fear is that, if we are identified with CRM, our reputations are now linked to this amorphous, meaningless thing. And linked to all the expensive software that will never earn out its promised return on investment. Here's the rub: If CRM goes down, will we go down with it?

The bloom is already off the rose. We see new petals dropping every day. Executives have begun to question their investments in this so-called fabulous new stuff. They spent millions. In trying to buy CRM, they neglected a number of critical points:

· Becoming customer-centric is not a trivial matter. Managing customer touch points across multiple sales channels, various communications media, and across the life of the customer relationship is probably impossible. It is not just about software, or even marketing automation. It requires enormous cultural change.

· Some companies, and some entire industries, will never be able to “do CRM.” (The consultants and software vendors may hesitate to tell you that.) If you distribute through third parties, or if you have a large, decentralized enterprise, the chance of pulling together a single view of the customer is almost nil. And managing the relationships in real time? Fuggeddaboudit.

· CRM is not about the Web. The Internet makes a lot of great communication fast and easy, but it is only part of the toolkit of CRM. The exception might be for pure-play e-commerce companies (if there are any left), where all touch points are Web-based. But even in the case of e-tailers such as Amazon, products are delivered by mail, and their advertising appears in print media. To be successful in managing customer relationships, the CRM software tools must be able to sweep up touch points everywhere.

· CRM is not a six-month project. Think more like 10 years. So companies must be patient, and resist letting CRM go the way of dodo birds like TQM and Excellence.

So what do you do now? Get back to work. When people ask if you do CRM, just say, “Naw. My job is to drive revenues. I just bring in the customers and keep them happy.”

And don't worry, the next buzzword is right around the corner. Heard about Six Sigma yet?

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