CRM's Identity Crisis: Duplicate Contacts

Multiple contact databases. Multiple customer entry points online. Keeping all of your company's contact information in sync just gets harder. Here's a look at popular approaches to the problem, and the pros and cons of each strategy.

At the core of customer relationship management is "who am I talking with?" In a simple SFA or CRM system, it's obvious: you called them, or they called you. But in enterprise CRM, it's tricky to identify exactly whom the interaction is with, and every new data source seems to make it harder. The problem occurs at two levels: contact information blur from multiple databases, and avatar confusion from multiple entry points into your company's web and social networking sites. This week, we'll cover the top layer of the problem.

CRM Definition and Solutions

Multiple Contact Lists

Nearly every employee in your company has an address list in their e-mail client. On analyzing a large number of those address books, you'll find a high degree of overlap. Of course, the data entries in each address book will have minor variations, setting the stage for a massive duplication problem if you ever tried to consolidate all that contact information. Fortunately, in most companies there is little reason to try this for most employees' contacts. The relationships just aren't relevant enough to the overall business.

But in professional services firms and investment banking/private equity/venture capital, the contacts of nearly every employee can be a valuable asset. It is very tempting to move towards a centralized list of contacts, making all of them visible in the CRM system. But the chaos of data in the individual address books makes that very hard. Here are approaches we've seen work, with the pros and cons:

Using a shared address book for corporate contacts, supplementing the private address books for each user. This approach is simple, can be set up to automatically synchronize the shared address book with your CRM, and doesn't involve a lot of cost. But it does require a change of user behavior: users have to remember to keep the contacts in the corporate address book updated, and to put new business contacts into the shared address book rather than their own private one. Further, the effort of deciding which people should be in the shared list, and deduping that shared list once created, is a visible and painful startup cost that stops many organizations from using this strategy. Finally, this won't really work if you're a Mac shop.

Using the CRM system in place of the e-mail shared address book. This is simple to understand and execute, but it requires an even bigger change to user behavior. People like to live in their e-mail client, and this approach means telling users to log in to their CRM system to get the contact info they need all day long. This strategy can work in sales, marketing, and customer service, but for most professional services organizations or senior management, this e-mail-plus-CRM approach is the kiss of death.

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