Designing a Customer-In CMR Environment

Start by Making it Easy for Customers to Manage their Relationships with Your Firm; Then Worry about Managing Your Relationships with Them

January 22, 2004

We have a unique opportunity to rethink our own information systems from scratch, we start from the outside in: with customer self-service, customer profile management, and customer transaction management.

We have a unique but somewhat rushed opportunity to upgrade and/or replace our existing CRM application, due to flood damage to all of our systems. I'd like you, our clients, to participate in our prioritization process-particularly vis-à-vis our Web presence and our customer interaction and customer transactional applications. Being "The Customer Company" has its challenges, particularly when unforeseen disaster strikes and our small business becomes all too vulnerable to business disruption. So I wanted to take this opportunity to think out loud about our priorities and our selection process and to keep you, our clients, involved in the process as we fix our broken "the cobbler's children have no shoes" underpinnings.

I thought you might be interested in how the CEO of The Customer Company thinks through the priorities in selecting a new CRM/CMR set of applications-from the outside in applications. Please tell me what I've missed from your vantage point! And feel free to offer suggestions. Our budget is limited. We're a really small, semi-virtual business (12 people, with half of us on the road a lot), with the usual small business constraints on IT support. The good news is that today's commodity platforms are getting more and more fully functioned. So it will be really interesting to see what we kind of functionality we can afford (and support) in today's market. (Folks are often offering us software for free, but as you all know, that's not the biggest cost. Being able to maintain and evolve our systems and keep things running is the highest cost for any business.)

1. NO DISRUPTIONS IN SERVICE. Obviously, our first priority is no disruptions to you, our clients. So self-hosting our Web site and our customer-impacting systems is not a good idea. As a very small business, like most small businesses, we can't afford to maintain the levels of redundancy and hot backups that larger companies can enjoy. And, as CEO, I've been remiss in keeping our Web site and our CRM system in-house for too long.

2. CUSTOMER SELF-SERVICE. Most of our clients tend to want to interact with us at all times of day and night from all over the world. You expect to be able to find what you're looking for quickly, to serve yourselves at your convenience via the Web, or to be able to phone or email and get an immediate answer. (Do you have information about this topic? Can I access it right now? If not, why not? What does it cost? Does my company have a membership? What does the membership entitle us to? When's the next Workshop or Pioneers' or Visionaries' Meeting? Who else in our organization is in conversation with you? What are other clients like me doing about topic X? Who can I talk to? I'm going to be in your area; are you available for a meeting? Can you come on date X to help us with Y? Where are we on this project we're working on together? I need to see the status and work in process.) Instant messaging support for premier clients is probably a good idea-or at least near-real-time email-as well as a reliable single phone number to call to get right through to the right person! What else do you want?

3. FOLLOW-UP EXECUTION AND VISIBILITY. All of us-you and us-are busy and somewhat overwhelmed. It would be great if we could visibly track all the commitments we make to each other, as well as the status of those commitments. Often, our answers to your questions are: "Yes, I'll get back to you about that" or "So and so has tackled that issue recently, let me find out if he'd be willing to talk with you about it" or "The Scenario Map from your last session is being transcribed and will be emailed to you within eight hours." Today, we do this with peopleware and calendar ticklers and reminders. It's not ideal for you or for us.

4. CUSTOMIZATION, PROFILE AND CONTACT MANAGEMENT, PROPOSALS AND CONTRACTS, ORDER ENTRY, FULFILLMENT AND BILLING. As part of our customer self-service offering, you, our clients (and/or our customer service and operations staff on your behalf) should be able to modify and/or update your profile and opt yourselves in and out of personalized services (e.g., what kind of research and offerings you care about, how you'd like to be contacted about which kinds of issues, whether or not you want to receive print mailings, and what kind of emails and alerts you want to receive). You should be able to buy from us one-off, à la carte, and on a subscription basis. It should be easy for you to comply with your own company's procurement policies and still avail yourselves of our services on an ongoing or an ad hoc basis. You should be able to purchase anything in you need in real time with immediate fulfillment and company-friendly payment (e.g., payment card for small amounts or easy-to-understand and -modify contracts and legal agreements for larger projects), to generate invoices automatically, and to see the status of your individual account or your company's account.

Notice that, so far, I have said nothing about "traditional" CRM functionality. I have not yet worried about opportunity management, sales force automation, or marketing campaign management (except in the context of letting you tailor what it is you'd like to receive from us). What I'm describing are the priorities for a Customer-Managed Relationship (CMR) system and/or a Customer Portal. My goal is to start with your needs first, then piggyback our own needs on top of those requirements. Now, what are our internal needs? How do our consultants, sales and marketing, customer service, and operations staff want to be able to manage their relationships with you?

1. We all need easy contact management-for individuals and companies-from within our email system (either Microsoft Office Outlook/Exchange and/or IBM Lotus Notes/Domino at any given moment). You, our clients, are a peripatetic lot. You often move around within your organizations. Your companies are constantly being reorganized. Your companies are often merging with one another. Yet the majority of our individual clients have been in a relationship with our firm-or with someone in our firm-on an average of 12 years! Keeping track of individuals as contacts is actually more important to us than companies or accounts. Yet most of you purchase our services through your current organization, so we have to keep that all straight. The vast majority of our interactions with you, our clients, occurs through email and/or through scheduled phone interactions or meetings, all of which we manage within our (at the moment) Outlook calendars. And, of course, we'd like to be able to have our client and account information at our fingertips wherever we are in the world, online or offline.

2. We would like to have much better visibility into each organization than we do now, so we can know with whom any of us is interacting, who last downloaded a report, who attended a workshop, who came in for a briefing, who sent an email, who answered it, and what did she say? Have we followed through? We'd like to keep better track of what projects you're each working on, what your current hot buttons are, and what organizational, business, or technical issues you're encountering.

3. We do need pipeline visibility and opportunity management so we can forecast our sales and revenues and do a better job of closing opportunities.

4. We'd like to offer ad hoc, ongoing, and on-demand group workspaces for shared projects, users' groups, discussion threads, and my next book in progress.

5. We need all of the above to tie into our basic small business accounting system, so we can book and earn revenues appropriately as we deliver services and research to you and invoice or charge you in the way(s) that are most convenient for you and your company.

This is your opportunity to suggest priorities or solutions and to set us straight about what matters most to you. I will keep you posted on our progress. I hope, you'll begin to notice improvements in our levels of service to you!

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