CRM on the Starship Enterprise

I became a “Star Trek” fan in the 1960s, when I first encountered Captain Kirk, First Officer Spock and the crew of the starship Enterprise. Like most fans, I was captivated by the vision of a technology-driven future full of hope and promise, and I became a full-fledged, card-carrying Trekkie.

I became a direct marketer in 1972, a database marketer three years later and, as database marketing evolved into customer relationship management in the late 1990s, a CRM specialist. Recently, it dawned on me that throughout all these iterations in my business career, I have been subconsciously applying the concepts and principles that define the United Federation of Planets.

Hey, don’t laugh! It works for me. Here are a few examples:

The prime directive. The most important principle drilled into every Starfleet Academy cadet is the prime directive, which forbids the Federation from interfering in the natural evolution of less advanced societies. This concept would seem the antithesis of marketing, which is overtly designed to interfere directly in the thought processes that people use to make buying and relationship decisions. But in episode after episode, Captains Kirk, Picard, Sisko and Janeway find good reasons to ignore the prime directive or bend the rule to fit the situation – always because they seek an outcome that will be good for the society in question. I’ve always thought that marketing skills should be applied in a way that is good for the target audience. It’s the only route to a real long-term customer relationship, and any other course of action is ultimately counterproductive.

Warp speed. Travel aboard a starship happens at warp speed, faster than the speed of light, but warp technology has its limits. No matter what, starships cannot go faster than warp 9.9. This is analogous to Internet speed and the ability it affords marketers to accelerate the selling cycle dramatically. But no matter what, certain parts of the marketing process simply cannot be speeded up. Does that mean we stop trying? Absolutely not. We’re always looking for a faster way to cross the finish line, in the same way that Federation scientists continue to seek the holy grail of propulsion – transwarp technology.

The no-win scenario. Bridge officer trainees at Starfleet Academy are put through a tactical exercise known as the Kobyashi Maru, a battle simulation that is impossible to win. The point is to teach them how to deal with failure. Sooner or later, we all face a marketing problem that simply cannot be solved, and if we’re lucky we gain strength from the experience. But in the second “Star Trek” movie, we learned that Kirk was the only Starfleet cadet to defeat the Kobyashi Maru scenario. He did it by reprogramming the tactical simulation so that it was possible to win. Some called it cheating, but Kirk thought of it as simply changing the conditions of the test, and he earned a Starfleet commendation for originality. There’s a lesson in there for us regarding thinking out of the box.

Technobabble. “Star Trek” is famous for its murky technical jargon. There’s a great scene in a “Next Generation” episode called “Rascals” in which Commander Riker is trying to confuse an alien engineer about the workings of the Enterprise computer. He describes the control system as “three primary main processor cores cross-linked with a redundant meliquartz ramistat, 14 kelliquad interface modules and a core element based on an FTL nanoprocessor with 25 bilateral kellalactrals, 20 of which are slaved into the primary heisenfram terminal.”

I don’t think it’s a big leap from there to “systemically deployed customer data integration utilizing scalable ODBC-compliant RDBMS technologies connected to a CRM engine driven by user-definable touch-point adaptation enabling a situationally derived customer experience.” Such language is usually an attempt to add importance to an idea or concept, but it just confuses people.

The lesson I’ve learned from that is the need to communicate in plain English. The process above also could be described as “a system that integrates all customer information into a single database that can handle large volumes if necessary, can be accessed by analytical tools you already have and is connected to a flexible CRM engine that can handle customer interactions in a way that is always relevant to the customer’s needs.”

First contact. The Federation has stringent rules about first contact with alien societies, designed to make their integration into a larger interstellar community as nondisruptive as possible. The premise is that the impressions formed at first contact have far-reaching implications. This is also a basic tenet of CRM and a cornerstone principle in any prospecting program designed to source customers with long-term value to the enterprise (no pun intended).

The Rules of Acquisition. There’s an alien race in “Star Trek” known as the Ferengi, a society driven entirely by the desire to make a profit. The Ferengi have 285 Rules of Acquisition, which define their code of behavior. While most of those rules are of the “caveat emptor” variety, some provide guidance relevant to database marketing and CRM. My personal favorites are: “Never pay more for an acquisition than you have to”; “Small print leads to large risk”; “Good customers are as rare as latinum – treasure them”; “Never let the competition know what you’re thinking”; and “It’s always good business to know about new customers before they walk in the door.”

Technology isn’t always the answer. Finally, true “Star Trek” fans know that the Federation’s gee-whiz technology is not usually the answer to any given episode’s threatening plot device. More often than not, the resolution lies in Kirk’s bravado, Spock’s impeccable logic or Picard’s craftiness. Technology by itself is almost never the whole solution.

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