As You Kick Off the New Year, Does Your CRM Program Require a "Mid-Course Correction?"

(Originally published in the January/February 2004 issue of AFSMI's Sbusiness.)

By William K. Pollock

Customer Relationship Management (CRM), just like any other major business initiative, requires a great deal of thought, time, planning, resources, energy, and money. But it also requires momentum to ensure that it maintains its applicability as the business evolves in an ever-changing marketplace. That is why so many well-intentioned CRM initiatives tend to "fizzle out" over time, either in terms of commitment, use, or simply because they haven't grown in functionality at the same pace as the company itself has grown. Whatever the reason, many organizations ultimately find themselves in a position where their CRM program just flat out isn't effective anymore.

Several years ago, Fram oil filters utilized an advertising campaign that stated "You can either pay me now, or you can pay me later!" This referred to the fact that you could either check (and, if required, replace) your car's oil filter on a routine basis (i.e., before a problem manifests itself), or wait until after a problem occurs, thereby costing you more money to fix the problem after-the-fact than to have routinely changed your oil filter earlier (as part of a self-administered preventive maintenance program). The same concept also applies to CRM: fixing (and correcting) the program along the way will undoubtedly save your organization more time and money than waiting for the process to "break" at a later date, or otherwise stray off course.

However, once a CRM program strays off course - whether by a lot, or a little - it is usually extremely difficult to easily get it back on track in terms of refocusing direction, reallocating resources, rechanneling team efforts, realigning processes, and in many cases, admitting that the program had gone off track in the first place! For these reasons, it is critical to monitor the progress of any CRM initiative on an ongoing basis in order to avoid falling into a situation where you will need to make what NASA refers to as "a mid-course correction".

Taking the NASA example one step further, when a rocket is aimed at the Moon, sometimes the "mid-course correction" requires nothing more than a 10- or 20-second burst of steam released from the side of the spaceship to ensure that its trajectory will be recalculated to send it to the desired landing spot on the surface. In cases where the problem is identified well enough in advance, it may only take this 10 to 20-second effort to ensure that the rocket does not miss its target by thousands of miles. In relative NASA terms, this is neither a complicated nor expensive procedure to execute, and the return is enormous (i.e., avoiding a potential total failure, and ensuring that the original target will be hit).

However, in cases where the problem is not identified until much later, or other lesser attempts have ineffectively been executed along the way, the rocket may have to be entirely reprogrammed - literally, on the fly - possibly entailing a new trajectory that will require orbiting around the back side of the Moon several times, and selecting a new landing site - or worse - sending it out into space as a failed effort. While the former "correction" would save the entire effort at a relatively minor cost, the latter would - at best - require a huge amount of resources (i.e., people, time, and money) for just the chance of avoiding failure. We believe that the same alternatives also apply to CRM initiatives, and that planning in advance for the most likely "mid-course corrections" should be a critical component of any CRM effort.

Hopefully, any required "mid-course corrections" will be "minor" (such as taking added steps to improve communications between internal customer support groups, improving management and process control, upgrading existing software to the latest releases, etc.). However, some corrections may be much more complicated, such as changing software vendors and/or platforms mid-stream, reengineering existing business processes, or dealing with other major CRM program-altering situations. Regardless of the level of correction that will be required, one thing remains clear - an ineffective CRM program will provide - at best - an ineffective CRM solution! Further, while an effective CRM program can generally always be expected to provide a measurable return-on-investment (ROI), an ineffective program typically will not - at any cost!

For many organizations, ongoing program monitoring and assessment is merely an afterthought - if it is a thought at all. These are the organizations that may ultimately find that their CRM programs have strayed way off course, and cannot be easily "corrected" or salvaged. However, those organizations that have planned well in advance, delegated the monitoring and assessment responsibilities, and documented them to the appropriate stakeholders, will have the best chance of correcting any future problems with only a minimal amount of resources needing to be expended.

The best way to plan for these eventualities is to build them into the program from the outset. All major business undertakings should already have these types of contingency plans built-in - especially those that directly impact the customer base, business processes, or the bottom line (which is certainly the case with CRM)! The key to ensuring that your CRM initiative has adequately addressed these issues is to create an ongoing process-monitoring and self-assessment mechanism that is well-defined and clearly delineated in the original plan; and to empower the appropriate group - or groups - to manage and monitor these functions effectively.

Some tips for ensuring that you are always able to address these issues effectively are:

  1. Incorporate internal and external communications as integral components of your CRM development and implementation plans.
  2. Develop "real" goals and metrics for evaluating and tracking performance over time.
  3. Build effective input and feedback processes (i.e., easy to use, properly managed, and responsive) into your CRM communications model that address all internal (i.e., employee), external (i.e., customers, prospects), and channel (i.e., partners, vendors, dealers, etc.) requirements.
  4. Build an ongoing monitoring, tracking, and assessment function into the plan, and designate an appropriate individual (and team) to manage it. Also, empower that team to conceptualize, articulate, and recommend appropriate corrective actions as needed.
  5. Provide management and the appropriate CRM teams with regular reports and tracking performance on a regular basis.
  6. Keep current with the CRM industry in terms of what platforms, applications, or functionality may be newly available; take advantage of your own vendor's regular upgrades, updates, and patches; and keep up-to-date on what some of the other industry leaders are doing with respect to their respective CRM initiatives (e.g., by tracking them on the Internet, attending trade shows and seminars, etc.).
  7. Plan ahead for tomorrow's upgrades today by keeping a close watch on your present CRM system status; setting (and revising) your goals and targets on a dynamic (rather than static) basis; identifying alternative "what-if" scenarios for addressing changes in your customer base (e.g., growth), infrastructure (e.g., outdated hardware/software platforms), or other organizational factors (e.g., restructuring, acquisitions/mergers, etc.).
There are many ways in which an organization can forestall problems relating to their CRM initiative, or - hopefully - avoid them altogether. However, in order to accomplish this, you must always plan ahead; address the most likely "what-if" scenarios in your contingency planning; monitor, measure, and track performance all along the way; and encourage and empower both your managers and their support staffs to get their jobs done effectively.

You regularly replace the oil filters in your car - don't you? You can still count on NASA to use "mid-course corrections" for its upcoming Moon launches. Therefore, it also makes sense - both philosophical and economic - that your organization's CRM initiative is continually supported by these planning processes as well.


William K. Pollock is president of Strategies For GrowthSM (SFGSM), the Westtown, Pennsylvania-based services consulting firm specializing in strategic business planning, services marketing, CRM consulting, market/survey research, and customer satisfaction measurement and tracking programs. Bill may be reached at 610-399-9717 or via e-mail at wkp@s4growth.com.


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