CRM in 2008: It's All About Managing the User Experience

Cost savings is a key driver for business decisions, but customer experience, content and collaboration have the potential to not only deliver greater organizational value but also put more control directly in the hands of customers.

The field of customer relationship management, or CRM, has certainly had its share of peaks and valleys. From the hype of the mythical "360 degree view of the customer" to the promise of the Web channel and new community-based models, CRM as a discipline has had to and continues to evolve (see "Is CRM Dead?"). Meanwhile, areas like knowledge management, business process management (BPM) tools and real-time analytics are raising the level of intelligence within customer-facing solutions and fostering interest and investment in adjacent markets that offer to extend and even reshape today's CRM platforms.

So, what's in store for CRM in 2008? When I put on my analyst hat and think about the initiatives that our clients have identified as priorities for the next year and scan the latest research from our friends at Gartner, McKinsey and others, some common themes appear. Certainly cost savings is again becoming a key driver for decisions as the economic picture becomes increasingly uncertain. But beyond the "doing more with less" mantra, there are three priorities emerging: delivering a differentiated customer experience (ideally across all customer touch points), better leveraging and delivering existing content assets so reps and customers have answers at their fingertips, and tapping into collaboration and the power of social networks.

These three C's—customer experience, content and collaboration—have the potential to not only deliver greater organizational value but also put more control directly in the hands of customers, a key to accelerating the payoffs associated with fewer calls and higher adoption of self-service applications (see "Can Self-Service Deliver Better Service?"). These priorities also reflect the growing interest in Web 2.0 technologies and "lightweight" approaches like wikis, RSS and social networks. These methods not only streamline communication and publishing of information but also drive greater knowledge sharing among internal staff and promote customer loyalty through peer support and communities of interest.

On the industry front, after an active year for deals in the enterprise software sector—especially involving big-ticket acquisitions of some of the top BI players like Business Objects, Cognos and Hyperion (by SAP, IBM and Oracle, respectively)—we expect market consolidation to continue in 2008. In addition to more valuation-driven deals at the high end, look for deals involving smaller vendors that streamline access to disparate customer records (think CDI and master data management), help tailor the user experience, and generate and manage community content.

Five Ways to Prepare

Getting ready for success with customer-facing technology initiatives is both an art and a science. As customers realize they are increasingly in control of their business relationships and businesses seek greater insight into what will drive loyalty and advocacy for their products, a balanced focus on organizational sponsorship and governance, user needs and incentives, and content readiness—even ahead of technology deployment activities—is essential.

This approach will be even more important as organizations look to leverage and integrate lightweight, SaaS and Web 2.0-inspired models with deep, SOA and BPM-driven solution frameworks. With these considerations in mind, the following areas are ways that your business can harness the full potential of CRM in 2008 and beyond.

1. Talk to your customers.

Whether via surveys or focus groups, ask customers what they want and how they define "usability" when it comes to self-service applications—often the most important factor in driving adoption of online tools. Look at the top issues or questions being asked, and ask about channel preferences; for example, when do you prefer to reach someone live, and when would you like us to contact you? With better insight into top issues and preferred delivery channels, companies may find that a simple "tuning" or upgrade of their website content, knowledge base or e-mail response system can provide significant improvements without the cost and delay of deploying new systems.

2. Audit your answers.

Between account records, support documents, marketing materials, product documentation, training material, e-mail threads, blog postings, forums and other sources, most companies have an awful lot of information that could help answer customer questions. Yet, it's surprising how little they know about how useful it is, who owns it, how often it's used, and what to do with it when it is inaccurate or out of date. In the end, it's the answer that matters, so a structured content audit can be money well spent, both as a necessary "spring cleaning" for CRM systems and a key step in getting ready to deploy new search, personalization or knowledge management tools.

3. Refresh your metrics.

There are many traditional metrics for measuring the performance of CRM initiatives like call deflection, upsell, average handle time, etc. But as online channels become the primary point of interaction and goals such as loyalty or customer advocacy potentially become more important than achieving additional operational efficiency, there is a need to examine and refresh your metrics. For example, first-call resolution may need to become first-contact resolution to represent e-mail and chat discussions. And handle-time targets in your call center will certainly need to be reset as easier questions get resolved online via self-service, or some agents hold simultaneous e-mail or chat sessions.

4. Embrace SOA.

If you have not already made the connection, a service-oriented architecture (SOA) approach to CRM is increasingly a no-brainer as the distinctions among sales, support and marketing blur, self-service takes off, and new Web 2.0 models gain traction. Not only is SOA a way to more easily access various components that make multichannel CRM work, but it also makes it easier to assemble next-generation "CRM 2.0" solutions from commercial and open-source software components, internal and community-generated content, and even a blend of on-premise and on-demand resources.

5. Optimize—don't just automate.

As discussed in my prior columns, having a CRM optimization strategy that is truly multichannel and supports all of the "old" and "new" channels is a must. At the same time, despite the urge to focus on opportunities to automate as many interactions as possible via voice response, online support, kiosks, etc., we need to shift the focus of CRM discussions to how to best support every interaction—and optimize the user experience—whether that interaction takes place over the phone, online or in person.

Allen Bonde is senior vice president and CMO at eVergance, an independent subsidiary of KANA Software, which delivers strategic consulting services focused on next-generation CRM, online support and knowledge management.

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