The road less travelled may be the best for CRM

In the second profile of keynote speakers at the Data Summit 2010, National Express’s Chris Dobson explains why having constraints on resources is sometimes a good thing if it focuses attention on the value of what you have.


For Chris Dobson, the customer relationship management journey is currently running in reverse. Having worked at Egg in the mid-00s, which he says was “better at CRM than anyone even today” he is now head of CRM and customer insight at National Express, which is towards the start of its journey.

Bringing experience from a company at the top of its game to one that has created a strong platform to grow can often be highly productive. “I want National Express CRM to be one of the most intuitive and value-adding programmes there is, from both a business and customer perspective,” says Dobson.

He adds: “I am aiming to see continual improvement in all aspects. We need to ensure that the data we hold is accurate and value adding, we need to understand gaps and ways to fill them, we need to understand behavioural drivers more and use the learning for future activity, and we need to increase the relevance of our CRM activity.”

Indeed, he cites the major challenges as being “relevance, relevance and relevance”. The CRM and insight department needs to have a positive influence on both customers and the business to help move National Express from a traditional operational led approach to re-orientate around the customer.

“Everything we do should stem from this. Is the data as accurate as possible? Is the proposition correct? Are we speaking in the right tone? Is it the right time to speak to a customer? My main issue is seeing how much potential there is to improve, yet finding time to progress at the pace I want,” says Dobson.

Dobson has a very pragmatic view about what needs to be done. On one side that means ensuring business buy-in, on the other getting customers to engage with the programme in an era of overwhelming choice.

It also means not being precious when looking at what is best for the business. “There is only a finite resource and all monies need to be spent in the best way for continued success. Although I have my own area’s budget to manage, I need to ensure that it is being spent in the most effective way business wide – and if that means giving some to another area to get a better return, then that is something I would recommend,” he says.

Some of this “customer-first” perspective was learned at Dobson’s first job in a Britannia Building Society branch. “It really opened my eyes as to how different each customer is and that treating everyone as individuals is the only way forward. Their ’plus one’ approach to customers will always stay with me,” he recalls.

Even if that was saying “thank you”, it could have a positive impact on the customer relationship. For National Express where the overall customer experience has been proven to strongly link to future purchase, that is a valuable lesson.

Dobson’s schooling in the science of customer data and insight came with a move to Boots in 1998, where he worked as a customer analyst on the Advantage Card. “The scale was great – one day you would be looking at the impact of a DM campaign, the next the optimal layout of a store to maximise sales,” he says.

This was further embedded through the move to Egg, where he became head of marketing planning, and a stint with Capital One in a research role, where his core aim was aligning business needs with fully-commercialised research.

All of those experiences are drawn on at National Express, where Dobson and his team are using data for everything from marketing campaigns through to performance measurement, drawing on customer analysis, research and financial data. The company has just built a new single customer view, working with

Experian, to further this customer understanding. As Dobson notes, “this alone shows the serious commitment to data at a senior-level.”

While Egg may have shown how sophisticated CRM could be in a cross-channel world, it was also operating in a boom economy and before social media took off. National Express faces a different set of challenges, from the sheer volume of data and the expansion of consumer technologies, to the issue of getting customer permissions.

What Dobson stresses is that because an opportunity exists, does not mean it should always be taken. “Striving for the next big thing or getting to 100 per cent may actually be causing us more harm than good – it may be causing us to miss the best return if we just stopped and looked at what we have already and use it in the right way. Knowing when to stop isn’t something we, as an industry, do well,” he says.

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