by Meridith Levinson

Getting to Know Them

May 09, 200713 mins
CRM Systems

Wouldn’t it be nice if just once, one of those surly airline employees offered a sincere and unequivocal apology for losing your luggage or for a delayed flight? If you fly first class with Continental Airlines, you may finally get that apology.

Since 2001, the Houston-based carrier has been enhancing the in-flight reports it provides to flight attendants just before takeoff with more detailed information on passengers. For example, in addition to indicating which passengers ordered special meals, the expanded reports flag the airline’s high-value customers and detail such things as whether they’ve had their luggage lost in the recent past or experienced a delayed flight. Armed with this information, flight attendants can now approach these customers during the flight to apologize for the inconveniences. Such high-touch, personalized service increases customer loyalty, particularly among Continental’s most valuable patrons, and that loyalty in turn drives revenue. Continental breaks customers into different levels of profitability: Since building its new system, the airline reports earning an average of $200 in revenue on each of its 400,000 valuable customers, and an additional $800 in revenue from each of the 35,000 customers it places in its most profitable tierall because it accords them better service.

Since the mid-1990s, companies have been trying to make their enterprise and customer data pay off. They know this data has value, but they don’t know how to effectively extract it. In their mining efforts, companies have built huge data warehouses, sunk millions of dollars into CRM systems and endured painful change management initiativesoften with lackluster results. Four of this year’s corps of Enterprise Value Award winners, however, have found ways to exploit customer and enterprise data to their advantage. Academic Management Services (AMS), a provider of student loans that was acquired by Sallie Mae in November 2003, was able to expand its business in early 2001 into the lucrative loan consolidation market by developing an interface to its various customer and product information systems. Executive recruitment company Korn/Ferry International bolstered its management assessment business, which specializes in evaluating executive talent, and its executive search business by creating a system that automates the company’s esoteric process for gauging an executive’s or manager’s leadership capabilities. Both Continental Airlines and retail cooperative Ace Hardware built enterprise data warehouses (EDWs) that have helped them boost customer loyalty through more effective target marketing campaigns and profitability through more powerful pricing structures.

The stakes for each of these companies’ success in building systems were high: Both Ace and Continental spent multimillions to build their data warehouses. Korn/Ferry risked losing credibility in the marketplace, as well as market share, if its automated system for evaluating executive talent didn’t work effectively because it had put so much importance on the system. And even though AMS made an initial investment of only $311,500 to build its CRM interface, known as the ICE (Integrated Counseling and Enrollment) system, it was spending much more to build a call center that fully depended on this application. These companies’ investments succeeded because they first analyzed their business needs and goals, reengineered existing business processes to take advantage of the data they were capturing, and put technology in place that’s both easy to use and supports the needs of users as well as the company’s business objectives. And they haven’t forgotten that it’s the customer-facing employee who can make all the difference in whether or not a customer feels well servedand that no technology, however superior, can make up for that human touch.

Analyze the Business Needs

All of these companies’ efforts to extract value from their customer data were supported by strategic corporate initiatives. They first identified a business need, and then developed their systems.

Ace Hardware recognized that to compete with big box stores such as Home Depot and Lowe’s and with other cooperatives such as TruServ and Do it Best, it would have to become more retail and customer focused. Since the Oak Brook, Ill.-based company’s inception in 1924 until the early 1990s, Ace had primarily functioned as a wholesalerbuying merchandise in volume and redistributing it to its 5,000 independent stores. Because the company was so focused on the wholesale side of the business, it didn’t have much of a view into its retail operations. Ace saw a data warehouse as a way to collect and analyze point-of-sale (POS) data from stores that elected to share it. The challenge the company faced was in convincing its co-op members to share their POS information.

At AMS, corporate executives monitoring falling interest rates in 2000 saw an opportunity to expand the company’s market share by entering the loan consolidation market. The company needed a way to identify prospective candidates for loan consolidation among its existing customers, and needed to build a call-servicing system to help support the new business. AMS CIO John Mariano and his two developers set out to create an interface to six internal and external systems that call center agents could access in order to serve consolidation customers. ICE helps loan servicing agents act on leads indicating which borrowers in the company’s Perkins Loan servicing system might be ripe for loan consolidation. “Rather than buying leads on the open market, we mined our internal data to generate our own leads,” says Mariano.

In the executive recruitment space, Korn/Ferry knew its competitive advantage would come from expanding its service offerings beyond just executive search programs into more consultative, human-capital management services such as conducting management assessmentsevaluations of the leadership and professional abilities of managers and executives. The company already had a strategic management assessment practice in place when it began developing its winning system, but the process it used for evaluating an individual’s or management team’s performance was arcane and paper-based. Even though the process for conducting management assessments was cumbersome, Korn/Ferry was confident that it could be a competitive advantage; it just had to find a way to make the process easier to execute on a mass scale. Korn/Ferry Senior Vice President and CIO Dan Demeter created an Internet-based solution that automates the assessment process. Now consultants in the management assessment practice can easily send evaluations to clients via e-mail, and quickly and easily tabulate and interpret the results of these evaluations using the Management Assessment System.

Continental’s desire to improve its ranking in a competitive industry drove it to build a real-time EDW. When the EDW was first being developed in 1998, its initial purpose was to bring data from some 27 systems together so that the company could more accurately forecast revenue. Since then, the company has used it to determine if customer loyalty initiatives really affect revenue. By testing a sample of 30,000 customers who experienced delays, Continental found that those individuals to whom the airline sent a letter of apology and some sort of compensation (either in the form of a free cocktail on their next flight or extra frequent flier miles) forgot the event and didn’t hold a grudge. In fact, Continental says that revenue from those passengers who received letters jumped 8 percent.

With their strategic objectives in mind, these companies then proceeded to identify the existing business processes that they’d need to change, and to develop new ones in order to better exploit their customer and enterprise data.

Identify the customer needs

To get value out of your back-end data, you have to clearly explain to employees how they can use the information and how it will make their jobs easier.

When members of Continental’s data warehousing staff first approached gate agents with freshly minted info on the company’s most valuable customers, the airport staffers didn’t understand how they could use this information, and the data warehousing staff didn’t know what to tell them. So after doing some research, the data warehousing staff went back to the drawing board armed with new insights about the work the gate agents do and the pressures they’re under.

Using operational and customer data in the EDW, the data warehousing team developed a solution to one of the biggest headaches gate agents face: accommodating passengers inconvenienced by a cancellation or delay. The team created a program that automates the rebooking process. Before the program was developed, gate agents had to figure out on their own how to reroute passengers. Now, when a cancellation or delay occurs, the system does the work for them. For example, when the system identifies a high-value customer whose flight has been cancelled, the gate agent may decide to put that traveler on a competitor’s flight just to make the individual happy and to get him on his way as fast as possible.

Currently, Continental is trying to use customer and operational data in the EDW to come up with a way for flight attendants to get information about baggage that’s been mislaid and to inform passengers while they’re still on the plane that their luggage has gone astray. The airline thinks being proactive will mitigate passengers’ annoyance over their bags being lost. If flight attendants have a way to tell an individual not to bother going to baggage claim and to take the person’s address so that Continental can send her suitcase when it arrives, the airline will save that person the time and frustration associated with filing a claim for lost luggage.

“Before the data warehouse, the person who yelled the loudest got the best service. Now our most valuable customers get the best service,” says Alicia Acebo, Continental’s data warehousing director. That strategy is helping the company narrow its losses during a period of great instability in the airline industry.

To boost compliance of Korn/ Ferry’s new recruitment process, Gary Hourihan, president of the strategic management assessment business, spent one day in 28 of Korn/Ferry’s offices around the world selling the search partners on the value of the new Management Assessment System. Several of the senior associates in each office got certified in using the system so that they could help search partners with their executive recruitment researchor just do it for them.

Reap the Rewards

Ace, AMS, Continental and Korn/Ferry have harvested real value from their systems. Because Ace’s EDW contains information on competitors’ prices, regional prices and promotions, Ace has been able to optimize its pricing structures to increase profitability. Mike Altendorf, Ace’s vice president of information technology, says that in 2001, sales revenue increased 90 percent across the 1,500 stores that changed their pricing structures in two product areas according to a price analysis done in the EDW. With the data warehouse, the company can now show retailers that are reluctant to increase their prices why they can do so for certain products without losing sales volume, or decrease the prices of other items and still prompt enough sales volume to more than compensate for the lowered cost.

Ace also uses its EDW to identify specific customers for target mailings. For example, a month or two before homeowners think about lawn care, Ace sends a promotion for fertilizer to individuals who’ve purchased Miracle-Gro or similar products from an Ace store in the past. Ace’s goal is to ensure its stores are the first that come to customers’ minds when the time finally comes to groom the lawn. By zeroing in on customers who’ve bought fertilizer in the past, Ace weeds out families that subscribe to lawn care services like ChemLawn. And because this type of campaign is better targeted, fewer promotional announcements are mailed out, which saves money on the cost of the campaign.

Altendorf says the response rates for Ace’s marketing campaigns run between 6 percent and 20 percent. The average response rate for a target marketing campaign is between 2 percent and 3 percent, according to industry averages. In 2002, the average number of visits per store from customers who are members of Ace’s Helpful Hardware Club increased on average by 5 percent, and total gross sales per store increased on average by 12 percent because of these campaigns.

At AMS, CIO Mariano’s development staff wrote a software program separate from ICE that finds leads on potential loan consolidation candidates in the company’s Perkins Loan servicing system, and automatically pushes those leads out to loan servicing personnel. The personnel then use ICE to counsel individual borrowers and families on the types of loans that are best suited to their needs, and to call on candidates identified by the software program Mariano’s staff created as ripe for consolidation. Because of ICE, AMS saw a 50 percent increase in loan growth from 2001 to 2002, and a more than 230 percent increase in loan growth from 2002 to 2003.

The cornerstone of Korn/Ferry’s Management Assessment System is a database containing information on some 700,000 executives who’ve taken a management assessment test with Korn/Ferry, and the results of those assessments. Consultants in the management assessment practice use these results and aggregated information on the executives in the database to create best-in-class profiles of different job functions, such as CEO, CFO or vice president of marketing. Employees in the management assessment practice match up individuals’ assessments with the best-in-class job profiles to see how each person measures up. Revenue from management assessment engagements increased more than 50 percent in Korn/Ferry’s fiscal year 2002 over the previous fiscal year. Because of the Management Assessment System, Korn/Ferry is generating $10 million out of its assessment business and is aiming to generate $50 million in a few years.

And Don’t Forget the Human Touch

What unites all of these companiesbesides their successful exploitation of customer and enterprise datais their desire to achieve their business goals by continually honing the service they provide. Nothing works better to convey that commitment to service than a company’s customer-facing employees. The winning systems described in this story help employees fulfill their service mission with confidence and ease, but it’s important to remember that the customer doesn’t see the EDW or the Web-based call servicing system or Management Assessment System. They see the recruiter who’s genuinely serious about finding them the best CFO possible; they hear the loan servicing counselor who helps them understand which loans are best for them; they encounter the Ace clerk who’s eager to help them select the best paint for their home; they see the flight attendant who offers to help them stow their bags in the overhead compartment. It’s ultimately up to the customer-facing employee to make the difference in each and every interactionwith the help of a well-thought-out business strategy bolstered by the appropriate technology. As Continental’s Acebo puts it, “If you’re flying on a plane and the flight attendant treats you badly, there’s no computer system that can make up for that.”

Send feedback to Senior Writer Meridith Levinson at