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Let me get this straight. The latest buzz suggests I should spend my time and money on web-ized Customer Relations Management (CRM) strategies? Talk about putting the cart before the horse!

Oh, the idea is pointed in the right direction, all right - but don’t you think first you need a satisfied customer base to manage? And unless you've been away visiting the hot spots on Mars, you know that prognostications for “e-business as usual” are gloom-and-doom. Studies prove most people are totally willing to spend online, but then they go there, find themselves confronted with Online Shopping Heck (this is a family friendly publication) and most of them don’t spend a dime.

Your goal, of course, is lots of satisfied customers - nice, happy ones who become loyal, repeat buyers as well as active referrers. But the fact they bought from you once doesn’t mean you have a relationship with them - yet. In fact, for all you know, they’re not coming back, and maybe for very good reason.

First, you have to create an online shopping experience that plants the seeds of a real relationship. Then you have to nurture those seeds tenderly with outstanding fulfillment and customer service. How would you feel if you bought something at an offline store and immediately the manager came over and started talking to you like a long-lost drinking buddy?

Building a relationship takes time. Shoving some tech-heavy CRM application at your customer is more likely to push them away than draw them in. If you want to get it right, you need to follow MRC, not CRM: Manage your e-business correctly so you can establish a Relationship from which you can develop a delighted and loyal Customer. Only then can all the other stuff you do have the impact you want.

Lots of e-enterprises out there have the software to facilitate CRM, and lots of software vendors would love to sell you some. But just like the scuba dude who puts out big bucks for gear when he's still 500 miles from the water, these same businesses don’t have the in-depth customer knowledge they need to use the technology effectively. They wind up getting carried away with trying to manage what they don't actually have.

According to David Sims, smart and common-sense Customer Relations guy,

"Everybody who profits from CRM has their own definition of what it is, but they're agreed as to what it is not: CRM isn't about technology any more than hospitality is about throwing a welcome mat on your front porch.

"Properly understood, CRM is ‘a philosophy that puts the customer at the design point, it's getting intimate with the customer,’ [in the words of Liz Shahnam, CRM analyst with the META Group]. Mike Littell, president of the CRM Division of EDS, agrees: ‘We view CRM more as a strategy than a process. It's designed to understand and anticipate the needs of the current and potential customer base a company has.’ Once you nail that, Littell says, there's ‘a plethora of technology out there that helps capture customer data and external sources, and consolidate it in a central warehouse to add intelligence to the overall CRM strategy.’"1 (bold emphasis courtesy of …me.)

In short, get the happy customer base first and then you've got something to manage. It all begins with how you treat your customers, from the moment they land on your site through their purchase and beyond. The first-time buyer plunks down his money for a product, but if he runs into hassles, he very likely will never come back again. To put it bluntly, poor customer service has lost you a customer and left you with nothing to manage.

Want some examples of how customer service failed in its efforts to establish a relationship? Here are some from the annals of the folks right here at Future Now (avid online shoppers, all).

One Future Now guy placed an order with BlueLight.com and sat back, fully expecting to receive his merchandise. He waited. It didn't come. He made an inquiry. BlueLight's Customer Care Team responded, in a very chipper and clearly canned email, that his order regrettably had been cancelled and then proceeded to thank him for providing input that helped them achieve their goal: "the complete satisfaction of each of our customers." More than a little dissatisfied and annoyed that his order had been cancelled and he had not been notified, he wrote again. He got another response. This time, the Customer Care Team informed him the item was out of stock, thanked him for shopping with BlueLight and suggested, blithely, that he should continue to keep checking out those BlueLight.com specials. Right! Don't think so.

Another Future Now guy ordered from CircuitCity.com. He handed over his credit card information on a $200 purchase, then learned later in the checkout procedure that the software couldn't handle the fact that his shipping, billing and actual addresses were all different. He couldn't complete the purchase online. Stalwart and still wanting to make the purchase, he called the prominently-displayed Customer Service number. The representative informed him their order screen was the same one that was online, they were only able to do what the website would allow, and, further, that t hey didn't have authority to process his order and credit card information over the phone. Needless to say, our friend made his purchase elsewhere. Circuit City forfeited a $200 sale, and they definitely don't have a customer, simply because their system was not able to accommodate the customer's needs. They can fire at him all the CRM guns they have; he won’t be back.

One person here spent an evening assembling her Amazon.com wish list for Christmas, then sending it around to family and friends. She kept getting letters from folks saying it was a nice idea, but they couldn't access her list. Amazon provided no information for resolving this problem, so she independently e-mailed the url of her wish list. Come Christmas, she received two of the same coffee pot from her wish list and two of the same book. Something in Amazon's system forgot to note when a purchase from the wish list had been made, so she got duplicates. After a flurry of e-mail exchanges trying to sort out the return of the duplicates, she finally was told to box and return them, and a gift certificate would be issued - not to her, but to the original purchaser of the gift! Having no choice, that’s what she did. Both she and the original purchaser are still waiting for resolution.

Amazon also came in for further drubbing in these offices because it took TWENTY DAYS!! for one of our guys to receive an order in which all items were said to be available for shipment within 24 hours. Despite the fact Amazon offered free shipping on orders over $100, he chose to pay for 2nd Day Air in order to get his order faster. When the order was slightly overdue, he wrote to ask where his order was. He was ignored. After waiting almost 3 weeks for the package, he is still trying to get credit for his 2nd Day Air payment!

And every one of us here has had the following problem: You go to a site, run into a snag making a purchase and decide to call Customer Service. But the lines at Customer Service are all busy. Do they put you "on hold"? No! They tell you to go to the website! Didn’t you just come from there? Duh!

What are these companies thinking? And these are the big guys with the big budgets and, supposedly, the big brains behind their operations. If you work out the statistical average of problems per person at Future Now and extrapolate to the greater online shopping population at large, you gotta know there's massive trouble out there in Paradise. And no wonder.

Make their shopping experience a drag, drop the ball on fulfillment, don’t keep your promises, send them canned messages that have nothing to do with addressing their problems or ignore them altogether - and then crank up your whiz-bang CRM “solution”? Good luck.

So, before you go spending your money on CRM, spend a little time, no a LOT of time, considering how effective you are at MRC. That’s where it all starts, and if you get it wrong, that’s also where it all ends.

© 2000 Future Now, LLC

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