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The Customer Relationship Management Vision: It Starts with Relationships

Written By: Michael Chuchmuch
Published On: September 16 2009

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Originally published - December 19, 2007

When it comes to the creation of a customer relationship management (CRM) vision that truly serves to enhance the customer experience, so many organizational leaders are trapped within their own understanding of what that vision entails. Consider the following statistic: of all CRM programs initiated, roughly 70 percent involve a great solution but a bad implementation plan, resulting in poor return on capital employed (ROCE) and, equally important, a negative CRM experience for all parties involved.

What does this mean?

Companies have a fundamental lack of understanding of what makes for a true CRM vision. The vision that drives the CRM program must embrace the picture of a new, enhanced customer experience—that is, a new relationship.

Therefore, the vision is not about the technology being used or the quantitative measurement of the number of customer transactions occurring. Sure, these elements are important, but they should be viewed as supporting factors or consequences of the vision, not the vision itself.

As a result of these misguided notions and subsequent CRM visions, the "new" customer experience is flat, or even unnoticeable. Further, the value derived by the company becomes mediocre at best, and CRM is given the undeserved bad reputation of not being able to deliver.

Following are four steps to develop an effective and attainable CRM vision.

Step 1: Start with the relationship.

Where does the vision of the CRM-focused organization begin? It starts with an understanding of what the relationship needs to be. That is, the relationship between the organization, its employees, and the customer. This is a triangulated, inter-dynamic relationship, and one that will be tested with every transaction, inquiry, and corporate decision. The vision starts with a picture of the relationship taken from a behavioral standpoint. Consider the following questions:

  • What does the future relationship look like—to customers, employees, management, and executives? Can you describe this relationship from each of these stakeholders' point of view?

  • What is the desired customer behavior in the new relationship? What would the customer's ideal behavior look like? Is it different for different customer groups?

  • What critical behaviors must the company, including executives, managers, and employees, demonstrate in order to promote and sustain the desired customer behaviors? How can current behaviors provide a catalyst for desired customer behaviors? Where is the gap between the two?

Those who are leading the CRM program and who are responsible for the creation of the vision must describe the vision in terms of people and possibilities. Leaders must refrain from focusing the vision on numbers or the type of technology that will be employed, as these are but the results and the tactics that stem from the vision.

To illustrate what I mean, consider the following experience I had working with an executive team from a major technology company.

The team was in the midst of creating a new corporate-wide, customer-centric vision for the transformation of the company's consulting practice. The goal was to create a new vision that would build greater customer reach and ultimately lead to activities that drive more consulting engagements. My job was to facilitate the process and provide coaching as needed.

I was amazed at how quickly the discussion of the vision turned to revenue: "Our vision is to make as much money as we possibly can." What's startling is that these highly intelligent, skilled, and educated leaders were serious. Even more surprising is that this approach is not an isolated incident. So many organizations fall into the trap of making the vision's accomplishments or results the vision itself.

The situation called for coaching and guidance on how the description of "relationship" would be the foundation of the vision. By the time we were done, the executive team had crafted a vision that included a statement of what the organization's relationship with its clients would look like, including how clients would benefit from this relationship. The vision also included a statement that embraced the relationship between the company and its employees, and how this relationship would serve to support the primary customer relationship. This was a sound vision statement, one that truly defined the company in terms of what it wanted to be in relationship to its customers. Here is that mission statement:

Our industry is about people. As leaders in our industry, we will actively pursue relationships with our clients that allow us to understand and embrace their business needs as our own. We will grow our relationships by providing our clients with world-class technical expertise, solutions, talent, and a passion for execution. We will endeavor to make a positive impact on the lives of people we touch—our leaders, managers, employees, and the people in our community—as we recognize the importance of their relationships with our clients. We will leverage these strengths and capabilities to earn the position as the trusted advisor and supplier of choice to those we serve.

A draft of the new vision was tested with a number of employee groups to determine if there was employee buy-in. Employees responded positively. They were impressed that the new vision included them; they were part of the future.

The new vision had traction, and the results from the initial inquiry suggested that consultants were excited about presenting the new face of the organization to clients. A small group of clients was also tested for its response to the vision. They received the draft vision positively and were impressed that their supplier would make them—the client—the focal point of the vision.

But back in the boardroom, there was little joy. The executive team reconvened to examine this newly crafted vision statement. Upon reflection by some of the executives, it was determined that the vision was too "soft"; business is about hard deliverables and gaining position. It is about establishing market dominance and presenting the company as the leader in its field. The result: the vision was redesigned to exclude any statements about relationships or that "fluffy people stuff." The statement now included that the company would be number one in its field (along with the other hundreds, if not thousands, of companies saying the same thing). It also included that the company would provide world-class service and technical expertise. Here is that new vision statement:

We will deliver precision thinking and relentless execution to drive client business transformation, resulting in [the company] becoming the technology and consulting services provider of choice.

At first glance, this statement may sound good, but these executives forgot that their clients already had such expectations. The problem the team was trying to address—how to grow the business and capture greater market share—was not solved by a vision that only included the interests of the company. What's more, when employees found out they were excluded from the vision, their morale decreased. The same could be said about the clients. After all, they were now left out of the vision as well.

Ultimately, the new corporate-centric vision was published and, as expected, little new ground was gained on the client side. The clients' reaction was, in essence, a big "So what?" They weren't part of the new vision, and their interests were with growing their own companies, not with making their supplier of consulting services "number one." In addition, attrition increased and the company lost many talented people.

Why did this CRM vision fail? Simple. Because business is about people—not technology, not new-fangled systems or processes, and certainly not positioning the company as being number one. These are either results of the vision, or tactics to achieve the vision. When it comes to CRM, vision is about people—and people require relationships.

Step 2: Support the vision with a culture of CRM possibility.

If the relationship-based vision is to be achieved, it is essential that the team—the company's employees, managers, and executives—are on board to develop and sustain the relationships described in the vision. Again, technology, strategic plans, marketing, and sales goals are all important, but the emotional commitment of the people involved is what determines whether the organization will be successful in attaining the CRM vision.

Too often, clients are presented with marketing material promoting a company's new "customer-friendly vision," only to be treated like intruders once they step inside the organization. Many companies make huge investments in creating a CRM vision, goal statements, policies, and procedures, along with subsequent new technology, only to have frontline staff, call center personnel, and sales professionals demonstrate little enthusiasm for customers.

The culture of the organization must support the concept that relationships are important and that they actually form the CRM vision. Look at what your organization is doing to move in this direction. Don't fall into the trap of thinking this factor is too "soft" to be a critical business strategy. Think about the relationship: why should customers buy from you when they can buy virtually the same product or service from someone else? Why should employees care about your customer if they don't have some type of enhanced relationship with the company to motivate them to do so?

Step 3: Role-model relationship-building behaviors.

We've all heard the old saying "You need to walk the talk." Well, it's true. When it comes to the leaders supporting the CRM vision, behaviors must reflect the importance placed on relationships. If you are looking for commitment from your people, nothing speaks louder than your actions. Reflect upon the following questions, and use these as discussion items within the CRM leadership team:

  1. What are our values as a leadership team in terms of how we develop and maintain relationships with our customers and employees?

  2. How do our values translate into behaviors and actions? What does the leadership team need to model?

  3. How will we prioritize business decisions based on these values?

  4. Are we willing to be held accountable to our customers and to our employees regarding our display of these values? How will this accountability manifest?

  5. Are we willing to admit that we make mistakes? Are we open to receiving feedback from customers and employees regarding our behavior and our actions in the building and sustaining of relationships?

Here's an example of a company that I believe takes the list above to heart.

JMJ Associates provides consulting and training solutions to help eliminate worker injury and to create injury-free organizational environments in major corporations all over the world. But the company goes far beyond consulting and training. JMJ Associates' leadership is immersed in the concept and belief that safety and injury-free is not just possible, but that it translates into a fundamental value for themselves, their families, their employees, and ultimately, their clients. As a result, this value forms the basis of all customer relationships and everything they do with regards to customer interaction.

In other words, the company's leaders walk the talk when it comes to creating the customer relationship; they demonstrate values that translate to actions and behaviors which support safety and injury-free workplaces for their customers. As a result, the customer experience is totally focused on achieving exactly what the customer wants and needs—the reduction of injuries and fatalities, with a goal and an underlying value and belief that zero incidents are achievable.

The bottom line is this: leaders need to make sure they are not fooling themselves by pretending to walk the talk. I say fooling themselves because they would be fooling no one else. Remember, your customer couldn't care less about what technology you employ or the process you activate to engage your CRM program; they care about the experience—the relationship they will have with your company. Equally, your employees are looking for more than words. They want to see that you, as the leader, believe in the vision. The question is, do you?

Step 4: Inspire commitment to the vision.

This step is the last piece to the puzzle. What needs to be done to achieve commitment from your employees? By this time, if you have applied the ideas in the previous steps, your employees are seeing a lot of new behaviors and actions, and they are well aware that something is happening. The challenge is to ensure that they see the opportunity in this change for themselves and, as a result, become committed to the vision.

According to Gartner, every organization going through change experiences a stratification of its employee base, represented by those who will be a) early adopters of the vision, b) an early majority of followers, c) a late majority of followers, and finally, d) laggards who may or may not buy in to the vision at all. However, with attention to a commitment strategy, leaders can skew these groupings to achieve a greater number of early adopters and early majority of followers. As such, organizations must understand what needs to be done to build commitment to the CRM vision. Here are a few points to consider:

  1. Build a path toward achieving competency.

    Employees need to know how to achieve the vision. They need to understand their role in the relationships with the client and the organization as described in the vision. They need to know how they, personally, will be adding value to the organization by embracing the vision, and they need clarity on the goals they must achieve if the vision is to be attained.

  2. Build a sense of comfort into the employee group by ensuring this is pursued as a team vision.

    That means everyone in the organization has a part to play in achieving the vision. If the CRM program becomes "just a sales program," it will create a great deal of tension and discomfort in the organization, because it will be seen as another management "flavor of the month" (popular but quickly passing) project. If this is the case, it will be communicated back to your customers as such.

    Employees need to feel that the vision is attainable. Ensure that the leadership team constantly talks about the possibilities and continually displays the appropriate behaviors and actions. Celebrate successes in the team as they are achieved.

  3. Create an environment of stability.

    Employees need to know that leaders are confident in the vision yet empathetic to employee and customer issues. Leaders need to stop negativity, particularly within their own ranks. Negativity that is observed in employee ranks needs to be addressed with understanding, as people typically are fearful of change. Reaffirm the vision—why the relationship between customers, employees, and the organization is important; what the expected outcomes are; and why the vision will be good on a personal level for everyone involved. Take the vision out of the clouds and make it real for the employees. Do this as often as needed.

  4. Build and deploy a solid communication strategy.

    Ensure that employees receive valuable information frequently. Each one is part of the team, and should not be surprised by changes or issues.

    Employees need to see managers and leaders as trustworthy and candid. Ensure that formal messages fit with informal dialogue from team and organizational leadership.

    Make certain that employees have the opportunity to meet with managers and CRM leaders frequently. Employees will need to be a part of the vision and the solution. That means communications must go beyond e-mail. Remember: it's all about people, and people need relationships in order to be committed to actions. Leaders and managers should pursue all opportunities to meet employees in small groups to engage in conversation and address whatever issues may be of concern.

The Bottom Line

The premise of CRM vision creation starts with an understanding of what the relationship needs to look like between the organization, the customer, and the employee. It ends there as well.

Far too many organizations spend valuable time crafting and pursuing a CRM vision that actually just represents the tactics or the results of the vision. If the relationship aspect of the vision is not embraced, the organization will spend its time, resources, and attention attempting to fill the gaps that will manifest. Slowly, the flawed vision will begin to reveal that a critical element is missing. The value of the CRM program—the enhanced customer experience—is about people and relationships. The output driven by a CRM vision that is not people-focused has limited value because it has limited depth and reach. It fails to understand the reasons for pursuing CRM in the first place, which is to create the relationship that leads to an enhanced customer experience.

The bottom line is this: if the CRM vision is not about enhancing the relationship between your customers, your people, and your organization, it's not about the true value that CRM can deliver.

About the Author

Michael Chuchmuch has 20 years' experience in leading customer-centric change and people development projects in several industries, including airlines, railways, consumer goods manufacturing, retail, IT, and petroleum. As an accomplished thought-leader and practitioner in the field of change, Chuchmuch is widely recognized for his in-depth knowledge and ability in getting people to work together effectively to gain active participation and committed support to customer-centric change initiatives. Skilled in leveraging organizational culture and individual values and motivation, Chuchmuch's approach to facilitating change unlocks the creative potential of leaders and teams, resulting in advanced opportunity identification, critical problem solving, and the attainment of business goals.

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