To Hang Up in Frustration, Press Seven: Lessons in CRMM

There’s something really odd going on.

At the same time that corporate marketing departments are investing in complex, expensive customer relationship management systems and one-to-one marketing processes, there is a trend toward the deployment of decidedly customer-unfriendly technologies.

My personal favorite is automated switchboard answering systems, a dehumanization of customer communications at one of the most important customer touch points. I hate to be the one to break the news, but a multimillion-dollar commitment to CRM and a bewildering maze of cryptic messages at the other end of a telephone line just don’t go together.

I call it CRMM, which stands for customer relationship mismanagement, and answering systems are only the tip of the iceberg. CRMM may be the quintessential business paradox of our time. Almost all companies practice it sometimes, if only accidentally, but others seem to have elevated CRMM to an art form. Here are just two examples taken from real life — mine.

Several years ago, I moved from Illinois to Pennsylvania. One of my first priorities was to open a checking account. I selected a nationally known bank because there was a branch near my new office. I deposited a $5,000 check written on my Illinois checking account and ordered a supply of checks. A few days later, I received a notice from the bank that I owed them a $30 overdraft fee, even though I had not written any checks.

It turned out that the bank had a “hold” policy on deposits of more than $3,000, so my initial $5,000 deposit was not “available” until the check cleared the Illinois bank. But before that happened, the check printer drafted my account for $8 to pay for the checks I had ordered, and the draft bounced. Of course I refused to pay the $30, which required a trip to the branch, where they told me it happened “all the time” to new customers. Not a great beginning to a new customer relationship. As you might guess, I found another bank.

Of course, valid reasons exist why a bank might want to place a hold on deposited funds, but a more evenhanded policy should make exceptions when circumstances dictate, especially if it’s true that it “happens all the time.” All businesses should review their “no exceptions” policies periodically to ensure those policies are not over-correcting the problems they were designed to solve.

A few days later, I bought a new car and contacted a local agent of the nationally known car insurer that I had been using for more than 25 years. He arranged to cancel the policy on the car I had traded, and I paid six months’ premium on my new car. Within days, my wife, who was still in Illinois selling our home, began getting bills for premiums on my new car. They came about a week apart, each bill from my old Illinois agent, and each bill for more than the one before. How the company’s computer came to believe my new car was in Illinois, or that my wife had bought it, or why it decided to send a larger bill every week is still a mystery. Nearly six months later, we were still getting random, unexplained bills that my agent had no explanation for and seemed powerless to fix. It was only after I threatened — in writing — to cancel all my policies that the company stopped sending the bills.

Computer glitches are a fact of life. Progressive companies deal with them by employing an “ombudsman” who can communicate with IT to ferret out problems and solve them. But lacking the ability to resolve the problem quickly, the company should have equipped the agent with enough information to reassure me that they were working on it, and that it was not affecting my insured status.

If you think about it, problems like those described above, if properly handled, can actually increase customer loyalty by convincing mishandled customers that the company will go out of its way to make things right.

Want a sure-fire way to find out whether your company practices CRMM? Call yourself up sometime! Become a customer. Request service from yourself. You might not enjoy the experience, but you’ll probably learn from it.

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