At the turn of the last century, companies didn't agonize over weighty terms like customer relationship management (CRM), that overused and misunderstood buzzword currently plaguing the business world. Instead they focused on the individuals who frequented their shops, restaurants, and offices. They paid careful attention to their customers' likes, dislikes, and quirks. Back then, customer relationship management was as simple as taking the extra time to learn the names and livelihoods of those who plunked down their hard-earned cash for goods or services rendered. While this attention to detail may seem old-fashioned and inefficient in our cellularly connected, Internet-ready world, the truth is, it worked.
As businesses move onto the Internet, dealing with the flow of seemingly anonymous customers presents a new challenge. Developing good business relationships is not exclusive to the brick-and-mortars.
Large companies deal with this issue by investing in massive monolithic CRM systems powered by bulky back-end databases and complimented by hordes of customer-service representatives. While effective, these unwieldy applications are usually out of the reach -- both financially and in terms of maintenance -- of the majority of organizations.
However, with the right combination of common sense, technology, and basic know-how, a small business can achieve a successful CRM strategy that will keep customers happy and well-served.
"For many small businesses, the CRM system is embedded in an owner's head, so new channels like the Internet can present a problem," says Melissa Shore, a small-business analyst with Jupiter Communications in New York. "The trick is to find solutions that let you provide the same level of knowledge and service you always give, just in different ways."
To help you do as Shore suggests, we've compiled some tips for successful relations with customers. By putting a few of these simple CRM principles to work, any organization should be able to use the Internet to grow its customer base.
USE YOUR SITE
An essential component to profitable CRM is anticipating what customers will want to know. This is where the Web can really help. Consider the frequently asked question or FAQ list, and use it to your advantage.
One way to create a top-notch series of FAQs is by paying attention to the types of customer e-mails and phone calls received. If, for example, a company experiences an inordinate number of requests for its new phone-installation service, one can conclude that it's time to scroll through the information that is presented on the site to determine where questions might arise. It makes sense to structure a single FAQ or an entire series based on that information.
Also, think about how customers typically interact with your sales representatives and try to recreate that on line. Building a basic request-for-quote or request-for-proposal form or worksheet may be worth the effort.
"The key is to follow the interaction between yourself and a potential client and use that as a guide for creating useful content," says Larry Sivitz, founder of Idea Bank Interactive, a Seattle, Wash.-based Web marketing and consulting firm. "You can even use your site to learn from what happens after your service is in place by putting up some basic surveys."
Though many business owners are afraid of offering too much information to their customers, sometimes flying in the face of convention can result in better service and stronger relationships. The Web is a perfect way to give that level of access, as Mike Stevens, CEO of Escrow Partners in Bellevue, Wash., discovered.
A 30-person firm that handles the financial side of residential real estate deals, Escrow Partners instituted a new Web-based system at the beginning of this year. It gives real estate agents access to all the information regarding their clients' home loans and title progress. Agents are assigned a password so they can log in at any time of the day or night to find every detail of a pending transaction.
"In our industry, the rule of thumb has been to only provide very selective information to agents but we decided to take the opposite approach and let our underwear hang out, so to speak," Stevens says. "This kind of service has had a tremendous impact on our business because agents get used to working this way and don't want to go anywhere else."
AVOID THE BLACK HOLE
As Jupiter's Shore points out, it's easy to let customers drop into a black hole on line, so making yourself available to customers, even in this electronic age, is crucial. That means giving customers lots of choices when it comes to contacting your business. Many companies forget to include a telephone number on its Web site or any related collateral. Informing people how you can be reached is a core aspect of CRM.
Also, try to remember the ways your customers, or people in your industry, prefer to interact. That's what Atlanta-based CarrierPoint, a 60-person e-marketplace developer that brings shippers and carriers together over the Internet, decided to do. Though an entirely Web-based business, CarrierPoint has reached out to its market by offering customer service and training on line and over the phone.
"We want to drive our clients to the Internet so they can help themselves. However, training over the phone has been really successful and has given our customers a lot of confidence. It's what they asked for," says Diane Dreher, vice president of product support for CarrierPoint. "No business will be successful unless it listens to customers and puts that feedback into operation."
GAIN MORE TIME WITH CUSTOMERS
Perhaps the most important point to remember when it comes to CRM is that technology cannot be an end in itself. The Internet, automated communications, Web-based self-help, and their ilk can certainly be powerful tools when it comes to dealing with customer requests. Anything that can cut down on the amount of time spent on the phone dealing with customer inquiries is a blessing, because it saves time and cuts down on costs.
However, the real secret to gold-medal CRM is resisting the false sense of security offered by the seeming ease with which automation resolves time-consuming customer inquiries. Use the extra time to your advantage and cultivate relationships with consumers. Solicit their feedback, and remind them, just as merchants of yore did, that they matter.
"For us, CRM and technology automates many of our business processes and basic interactions with our customers, allowing more quality time with them," Escrow Partners' Stevens says. "They come back to us or refer us to their friends."
"That kind of personal touch is often missing today, but it's essential to us because customer referrals and personal comfort are what our business is built on."