The CRM Paradox

When a 360 Degree View Doesn't Give a Complete Picture

June 20, 2002

There is an emerging paradox: customers frequently can get more information than can the employees whose jobs are to help them. In order to avoid stovepipes of information, companies must design systems for customers and customer-facing employees from the outside in.


There is an emerging paradox: customers frequently can get more information than can the employees whose jobs are to help them. CRM systems have evolved to provide complete information about customers, but, frequently, customers need other information to reach their outcomes--information that is readily available from other sources than customer support. In fact, this information may be unavailable to customer support as they attempt to solve the customers' problems.

Designing your processes from the outside in (taking the customer's point of view) will assure that new stovepipes of information will not be created and that both the customer and your customer-facing employees will be on the same page.

Approaching 360 Degrees

Every company agrees that the most effective way to serve customers is by having a 360 degree view of that customer's relationship with you. For the past four years or so, businesses have been implementing CRM systems designed to do just that. And a lot of progress has been made. Many companies now have a single customer database (at least, virtually) that captures all interactions with each customer rather than the stovepipes of information that they used to have. Customer support systems have been designed to enable customer support representatives (CSRs) to quickly access any customer information relevant to the support issue at hand.

At the same time, companies have been providing information directly to customers via their Web sites that allow the customer to better serve themselves.

However, the information that the customer can access is often unavailable to the CSR who can only work within fixed processes defined in the CRM application.

Approaching Cleveland: A Real-Live Example

On September 12, 2001, with air travel in the United States shut down, one of us (David), along with two colleagues, were attempting to get back to Boston from Minneapolis. Driving in our rental car, we tried to calculate how far we would be able to drive before having to stop for the night.

Our strategy was to call Marriott for help in finding a convenient hotel. We knew that we were driving along Interstate 90 and that we did not want to stay near a large city with an airport, assuming that all hotels would be booked already. We asked the Marriott CSR, "Can you find us a hotel for tonight with three available rooms somewhere between Toledo and Cleveland along Route 90 and not near an airport?" We were politely told that she couldn't. She didn't have any way to find out that information.

If we had specified a city, she could have found available hotels within a certain range. And she could access our profiles to know what types of rooms we prefer or whether we had upgrades available. She probably could have informed us of nearby attractions, booked a vacation, and reviewed our past stays at Marriotts worldwide. But she couldn't answer our immediate question.

With a map in hand, we were able to talk her through several possible cities along the route, and she was ultimately able to book us into a Marriott in a suburb of Cleveland--the result of a true collaboration.

During our recent Visionaries meeting, we told this story to a Marriott executive. He shook his head, but was not really surprised. He responded that we could have achieved our scenario easily directly from the Marriott Web site (see Illustration 1), and he told us that one of his personal goals is to provide a much richer set of information to the call center to enable them to help in just such situation.

Approaching Stovepipes

And, thus, the paradox. To solve a customer problem, the CSR did not need customer-related information, which she had in abundance. She needed information from other sources inside, and possibly outside, the company--information that was readily available to the customer, but not easily accessible by the CSR. The CRM system was supposed to remove information stovepipes created by multiple internal systems. But companies are still stovepiping information, albeit in different ways. In this case, there are distinct stovepipes of information--information that is presented to the customer and information that is available to customer support.

This disconnect is actually quite common. We see it frequently in call centers where the customer has questions about information on the Web site, but the CSR doesn't have access to the same external view of the company Web site. In fact, it is still too common a practice, unfortunately, to pass any customer support call that mentions the Web site to a specialized Web support group.

Other situations where this paradox occurs concern in-store sales personnel and on-site service technicians who always seem to have less information than their customers who have visited the Web site. Information access is frequently designed very tightly around very specific processes. For example, the sales associate is often assumed to be working on issues that revolve only around the customer's in-store experience; the field technician is assumed to only need information about the specific incident he's addressing.

Part of the disconnect occurs because, in many cases, CSRs are using older, legacy systems, while the customer-facing technology is all brand-spanking new. It seems ironic that those customer-centric employees on the front lines of service support are, all too often, using yesterday's technologies that don't take into account the fact that, today, customers have visibility into so many operational systems.

Approaching Transparency

We have often advised companies to design their CRM systems from the outside in, putting themselves in their customers' shoes. This is the only way to ensure that the systems and processes can capture and deliver the results that customers ultimately need.

Building on that concept, we believe that all employees that touch customers (CSRs, salespeople, service technicians, etc.) should have their information environments designed as supersets of all and any information that the customer may want. This may prove difficult as many of these employees work in highly customized environments where their information access may be through a mobile device or point-of-sales system. However, companies are facing similar issues in providing information to customers who are working from non-traditional devices (PDAs, cell phones, GPS systems, etc.) and are working hard to develop solutions.

While there are obstacles to overcome, it is only by designing your processes from the outside in--the customers' point of view--that you can be sure both the customer and your customer-facing employees will be on the same page. And well-designed, transparent, seamless processes lead to satisfied customers. And, as we all know, satisfied customers contribute directly to bottom-line profitability.

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