The Customer is often ignored

One of the many parallels that can be drawn between business and modern warfare is the often naive belief that investment in sophisticated technological ‘solutions’ somehow obviates the need for well-trained troops on the ground.

A good case in point is the customer relationship management (CRM) fad which has swept through many mature organisations that ought to know better. Household brand names, such as Shell, Prudential and BA, have invested hundreds of millions of pounds in implementing CRM systems. Yet, as one rather cynical speaker at last week’s Marketing Forum pointed out, not one convincing case has emerged to demonstrate that the money has been wisely spent.

Part of the problem has been definition – a precise understanding of what CRM can and cannot reasonably be expected to achieve. Consultants have not helped. For self-interested reasons, they have hijacked and perverted the term to mean anything from process automation to data warehousing, all the while investing their (no doubt ‘unique’) offering with the potential to make the client company ‘totally’ customer-centric.

If only it were that simple. CRM is a means to an end – apart from saving a bit of money, it should make the company and the brands it owns more understanding of, and responsive to, customer needs. As Simon Daisley, whose company CCC has produced some interesting research on the topic, succinctly puts it: “CRM is something you do, and being customer-centric is something you are.”

Or are not, as is too often the case. Some of the CCC research made pretty dismal reading. While the supermarkets emerged with credit in the eyes of consumers, the performance of some household names, such as Vodafone and NatWest, was abysmal. It should not be imagined that companies which fare badly have no customer-centric strategy in place – more likely they have failed to grasp the enormity of the task confronting them. Assiduous lip service in the boardroom and substantial investment in software are no substitute for a genuine commitment to joined-up marketing, which should embrace the whole of a company’s workforce – and that of its outlets as well. After all, the customer’s perception of a brand is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain to market. The customer has no interest whatsoever in who is to blame for that weakness.

Often, of course, corporate culture issues head-butt this ‘joined-up marketing’ ideal. For example, while brand values may be the preserve of the marketing department, the training and practice which ensures those values are adhered to internally within a company are not. That is something for chief executives to sort out.

An astonishing example (astonishing at least in the frankness of its avowal) was contained in chief executive Dianne Thompson’s admission, during the Marketing Forum opening address, that Camelot had lost touch with both consumers and staff in the all-out bid to recapture the National Lottery licence.

If only all chief executives were so candid – or so determined to make amends.

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