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CRM the Talk of the Show at ICCM

CHICAGO – Customer relationship management, and the one-to-one marketing associated with it, was on every countertop in the exhibit hall at the ICCM’99 Conference and Exposition last month. But while vendor enthusiasm for the concept was solid, and end users seemed to grasp the concept quickly during booth demonstrations, it was questionable how soon the technique will be adopted by the industry.

Although exact definitions of CRM varied, it was most commonly used to refer to techniques and processes that make more data on a caller available as the call comes in, so that a call centers could better choose which calls to answer first and how the calls should be serviced. The ICCM’99 show, held at McCormick Place here Aug. 31 through Sept. 2, attracted 4,526 attendees, and a newly launched CRM’99 show co-located at the center drew 1,481, bringing the total number of people walking in and out of the 66,000 square-foot exhibit space to more than 6,000.

“It’s about first answering the right calls, and then answering the calls from customers who maybe are not as important to you. It’s about whether you are going to answer the call from the caller who wants to check on what time her husband’s flight is coming in, or whether you are going to answer the call from the frequent business traveler who will buy a business class ticket,” said Sheila McGee-Smith, director of call center and operator services, The Pelorus Group, Raritan, NJ. “It’s the logical progression of things. First we showed we could answer all the calls; then we showed we could answer them more efficiently; the next step is one-to-one marketing.”

Jeanne Dorney, call center manager for Rodale Books, Erasmus, PA, noted that after attending the show she actually steered away from implementing CRM for next year.

“CRM was on our plate, but we took it off for next year. All the vendors are excited about it but I just don’t see anyone doing it. I have to see how it is working, and what type of results they’re seeing,” she said. “I need to see someone who’s doing it and it has to be someone smaller than IBM, because that’s what we are.”

“The vendors are telling us that this is something that everyone is doing but there are a lot fewer doing it than the media would lead us to believe,” added Paul Anderson, a Houston-based writer on the call center industry and frequent speaker and industry conferences and events. “The conference was about 18 months ahead of its time, and that is a little too far ahead to be useful.”

However, Anderson noted that the term CRM indicates an effort by industry vendors to shift the focus from technical words to words that suggest results, and demonstrates the increasing importance of call centers to senior level management.

“CRM is an executizing term for call centers. Vendors have to communicate value now – what it’s doing, not how it works,” he said. “The conference was full of people striving to speak C-level language. What it reflects is the increasing importance of call centers to upper level management, CEOs, CIOs, CFOs. Increasingly in the information age, information is king and call centers manage information about customers.”

Pamela Hagan, MIS coordinator for Towers Perrin, Philadelphia, whose call centers answer calls from clients’ employees about employee benefits, noted that the CRM packages she saw at the show were not much more advanced that the techniques Towers Perrin already has in place, and those that were more advanced, seemed unnecessary

“There are some clients who may have in place certain requests that upper level executives should have their calls answered quickly or by more senior personnel and we are able to accommodate that. But are there plans to leverage from one customer to another? No.” she said. “I see CRM as not only answering certain calls first but being able to look at all the data about who’s calling and to a certain extend we’ve been doing that for some time.”

Hagan, found the most value in some of the conference sessions, that provided real-life experience in call center management, particularly, some of the talks about how others have managed the integration of Web communications into their call centers.

Meanwhile, several attendees noted that on broader terms all vendors could have boosted their products a bit by having more clients speak from the user perspective.

“I like to see why someone took a product, what they did with it, why it worked or didn’t work and what the results were. It’s more meaningful to me that way,” said Beverly Gregory, assistant vice president technology and research, with the Lutheran Church Extension Fund.

“I’d like to see more of the human element,” added Joanne Campbell, customer service manager of the Ottowa Citizen, who had attended the show to look for monitoring equipment. “In conjunction with the equipment, I’d like to see more of the training that would benefit the users of the equipment, more about how to maximize skills and knowledge to ensure that everyone using it is getting the most advantages out of it.”

Campbell described the CRM push as overblown. “I think there’s a use for it but I don’t think the thrust they were putting on it was necessary,” she said.

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