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CRM – fact or fantasy?

You may, or may not, know that periodically I write stuff about customer service issues – and on the whole I try to write properly researched stuff rather than fiction (though I have moments where some of the materials I have to read on the topic seem to come from a world I don’t recognise). The latest round of this relates to something known by the acronym ‘customer relations management’ or CRM.

The idea of CRM is that if a company has a customer, they have a relationship with that customer that is ongoing and over the course of time may result in the customer purchasing more services or products. Lots of business gurus have been advancing this idea for a number of years now.

But I’ve been taking soundings from friends about this idea and, while the phraseology is mine rather than theirs, I wonder if customer relations management has been undermined by the postmodern economy, and dropped into a black hole.

Consider the following examples:

  • someone who used to work in a bank recalling a speech by the CEO that was supposed to motivate staff, though to do what, exactly, wasn’t entirely clear. What he said was, apparently, that the important thing was that the customer should ‘have the perception’ that they’d been served well. That phrase could mean a number of things, but the context was that customer service is about perception management, with a customer believing they’d been served well while the underlying reality might be somewhat different. After that, the bank started to get itself into a bunch of problems that, to be fair, paled into insignificance after the onset of the financial crisis of 2010.
  • the comment from someone who knows about call centres that the basic problem is driving down the cost per call. The net result is, in their understanding, that call centres have become increasingly overloaded and offer a poorer service than they did, say, 5 years ago because offering a good service costs more. I don’t know if this is universally true. But the last time I actually tried to call a call centre, earlier this week, it involved a 25-minute wait with alternating adverts and a music track that appeared to have got stuck. The very fact I was waiting because ‘all our agents are busy’ didn’t exactly lend credibility to the services being advertised between the Stockhausen-type sounds that resulted from what was probably supposed to be a pop song of some description. The guy who answered the phone was polite and efficient. But then he had to admit that while he’d proposed a solution to my problem (which I tried in real time and it worked, fortunately), he wasn’t actually sure it would work because it only works occasionally.
  • someone who works in a dual environment in an urban and a rural area, in a public service. The customer setup in the urban area is highly automated and enables people to get in and out of the place quickly. That in the rural area is highly automated which means almost everyone (it being a more elderly population etc.) needs to have a staff member on hand to make the automated systems work for them. It would be faster to decommission the systems and let staff deal with customers directly – and result in fewer frustrated customers.

I can see the value of CRM if you’re selling, say, large and complex things that cost millions or billions of pounds, because these projects take a long time and the context changes as the project goes along. If you’re building a dam or making turbines for a power station, stuff happens along the way and you need to know that you have to alter your designs because tab A on the original plans won’t fit into slot B when you come to install the thing, since tab B has been replaced by gizmo C. Or whatever.

But for most ordinary everyday purposes, the idea of customers who stay with a particular company and want a ‘relationship’ with that company doesn’t seem to fly any more. People ideally want stuff that doesn’t go wrong and doesn’t need much customer service, and if they do have to make that phone call then a good proportion of the time it will be because something’s broken and needs fixing – in other words, because they need help now and something’s frustrated them.

Meanwhile, the financial realities of the postmodern economy are such that reducing cost and increasing productivity is paramount, and if that means cutting corners on customer service which is often perceived as not being a ‘profit centre’ for the company, then so be it.

Are my friends right? Is my analysis of this credible? Have business gurus got this one wrong?

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