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Innovating Service With Chip Bell

Quality Insider

Keeping the “R” in CRM

Heed and hear your scouts.

Published: Monday, September 14, 2009 - 04:50

Ray Bell was a math teacher, turned credit manager of a farm equipment company in my rural southern Georgia hometown. He was also my dad. I knew he kept a very detailed ledger book that had information on every customer he gave a loan. He could tell you how often a farmer came into the tractor company, how often he was late on a payment, the ratio of his loan to cultivatable acreage, et. cetera, ad nauseam!

When my dad passed away, lots of farmers told me at his funeral what a wonderful credit manager he was. “Oh, he was strict, mind you,” they would tell me. “If he gave you a loan on a new tractor or planter, he expected you to repay every cent of it. But he really knew us.”

I later found an old copy of one of his ledger books after the equipment company was sold when the owner died. All his figures were meticulously maintained. In the far right margin were notes like, “oldest boy has had the flu,” or “boll weevils worse this year.” There was even a small newspaper article clipped to one of the pages about one customer’s son’s military achievements. I am confident the figures were all accurate. However, the facts depicted in the books were enlightening.

Customer relationship management (CRM) has been a boon to helping organizations tailor their customers’ experiences. Maintaining CRM has enabled more targeted marketing, more efficient account management, and a path to a better understanding of customers—their needs, practices, and expectations. But as data are captured, analyzed, sliced, and diced to produce colorful graphs and charts, do they enable the keepers of the fancy “automated ledger book” to really know their customers?

The nature of customer service is fundamentally a relationship based on an implied covenant to exchange value for value. Feelings characterize it far more than facts—emotion more than logic. No matter how comprehensive and accurate our customer data may be, they will never completely assess or describe the magic and mystery of that relationship. With our objective data, tidy calculations, and sterilized reports, we must never forget to rely on the unscientific report of those directly involved in creating the customer’s experience.

I once had an infantry battalion commander in Vietnam remind me, “We have flyover photos, sophisticated maps, and detailed intelligence briefings, but no one knows the enemy like our troops in the field.” He was a superb commander who got out of the tent and into the field. Successful CRM requires harnessing the insights of the “scouts” who are ear to ear and eye to eye to the relationship every day. My dad didn't fill the far right margin of his ledger book by sitting in his office.

Take a look at the top-ranked service-providing companies—USAA, Amazon.com, Zappos.com, Lexus, Ritz-Carlton Hotels, etc.—they all have savvy CRM systems. Yet, all make an obsession out of listening to the scouts who listen to the customer. Their leaders are renowned for getting out of the tent and into the field. They focus on keeping the “R” in CRM by instituting ways that customer intelligence can come from the “troops in the field,” not just the computer in the back office.

Customer-centric organizations encourage everyone in the organization to be a customer scout. The security guard or receptionist might teach you more about customers than 40 focus groups. Are there natural and comfortable ways to get quick scout reports? When employees hear important customer feedback while standing in the grocery line or at the rotary club luncheon, are there easy, known ways to channel the learning back into the organization? Are call center operators given frequent opportunities to share insights in a supportive forum that can trigger needed change? What role do real-time scout reports play in helping the organization enhance the relationship with the customer, not just their response to the customer?

Underemphasizing the “relationship” in CRM can lead to a dehumanized customer experience, so aptly characterized by a friend when describing her bank:

“They installed this system so all my correspondence from them is now tailored—they even knew my son was heading off to college this year. Now, when I call and give them my account number, they comment on the fact that I have a new Buick, financed by their loan department. But all that is just mechanized. When I walk into a branch no one acts like they know me or want to know me! Give me back old fashioned personal service, not this 'customer-ized' baloney. It’s no more genuine than the ATM.”

Most of us like tailor-made service. We enjoy a service provider that knows our preferences and caters to our unique needs and expectations. We want the service provider to treat us like an important and valued person. And, just like Ray Bell’s customers, we want to know that inside customer service is a human, not a program.


Chip R. Bell is the author (with John R. Patterson) of the best-selling book Take Their Breath Away: How Imaginative Service Creates Devoted Customers (John Wiley & Sons, 2009). He can be reached at www.taketheirbreathaway.com.



About The Author

Innovating Service With Chip Bell’s picture

Innovating Service With Chip Bell

Chip Bell has helped companies dramatically enhance their bottom lines and marketplace reputation through innovative customer-centric strategies. For the sixth year in a row, Global Gurus in 2020 ranked Bell as one of the top three keynote speakers in the world on customer service. Bell has authored 24 books; seven are international best sellers. His latest book, Inside Your Customer’s Imagination: 5 Secrets for Creating Breakthrough Products, Services, and Solutions, shows how co-creation partnerships enable you to tap into the treasure trove of ideas, ingenuity, and genius-in-the-raw within every customer.