CRM seeks to break barriers
By Kelly Hill | August 25, 2007 – 9:16 pm EDT

If businesses had Ten Commandments, No. 1 would probably be \”Know Thy Customer.\”

Easier said than done.

Customer information plays a crucial role in customer relationship management, from determining the type of offers and incentives that are made to customers to impacting growth and retention. The Internet is opening up new frontiers in gathering customer information, and potential advertising revenues make it ever more important for wireless companies to have a good handle on what they know about their customer base – in addition to the importance of the information for their own sales and marketing purposes.

But challenges remain in making the data accurate and easy to access.

The customer information involved can include demographic information (such as location, age and income); a buying history of products a customer has purchased from the company; revenue history; and perhaps also a loyalty profile, such as whether you belong to any loyalty programs that a company might offer.

According to Steve Bamberger, vice president of media, communications and utilities for Oracle, it simply isn\’t enough to warehouse data on customers. It needs to be accessible yet secure, able to be queried and analyzed, accurate and up-to date.

Customer information \”comes into use in excellent personalized service,\” Bamberger said. \”If you can get customers into the right products for them at the right price point, and offer them the right bundle of service, you have a much greater chance of retaining that customer.\”

Advertisers are eager to get their hands on as much customer information as wireless companies can legally provide as they explore mobile campaigns, according to Jared Reitzin, CEO of digital marketing firm mobileStorm Inc. Some of the important pieces beyond demographics include logistical information, such as what type of phone a customer has, what network it runs on and what type of content they can receive. One particularly attractive aspect of mobile is the possibility of a two-way automated conversation with customers, Reitzin said – perhaps asking for feedback on a recent hotel stay, via text message – so that a customer\’s profile can be built upon with new information. The amount and quality of available customer information for customer service \”not only impacts the customer satisfaction, it impacts employee satisfaction,\” said Marchai Bruchey, chief marketing officer for multi-channel customer service provider KANA, which serves wireless carriers around the world.

\”If you don\’t have the information to do your job effectively, and you\’re the front line to your customers, that obviously is going to show,\” Bruchey added. She also noted that when customer information isn\’t well-integrated across channels, customers can end up frustrated when they are given different answers on the Internet or through a call center, or conflicting responses from different customer service reps. Bruchey said that insufficient customer information can also drive up costs by increasing call handling times as reps search out what they need, and/or bumping up the number of times a customer must call in order to get a situation resolved.

Breaking out

The Internet is opening new ways to gather customer information, but the channel has largely been treated as its own silo within wireless companies, with some missing out on the benefits of integration.

Richard Smith, director of CRM practice for Green Beacon Solutions, said smaller companies are eagerly exploring options for collecting more customer information via the Internet, as well as providing additional services via the Web because of cost savings.

A customer who is browsing for a new handset or checking account information probably doesn\’t want to be hassled with demographic questions, he noted. However, someone who is renewing a contract online is probably more open to being asked about household income and other facts – and may be more honest than if asked the same questions by an in-store sales representative.

According to Smith, telecom companies across the board are subject to a kind of \”paranoia in the marketplace\” that was embodied in the Apple Inc. iPhone: that shiny, new technology or devices alone will prompt customers to end their contracts, and companies are trying to figure out how to hedge their bets against such actions.

One key strategy is to keep sharp track of which contracts are expiring and what the competition is offering, Smith said, so that appropriate offers can be designed and offered to customers. Accurate customer information is a key component in that area. Smith noted that wireless carriers offer strong incentives in the form of device discounts for long-term contracts and discounts on service plans – however, he added, \”almost everybody offers it.\”

Tracking loyalty

Loyalty programs – such as grocery store discount cards and frequent-flier programs – have met with great success in other industries. Oracle\’s Bamberger said that telecom companies should explore that option as well as reward reliable customers – but they don\’t necessarily have to have a public face. A company such as Verizon Wireless, he suggested, could designate some criteria for \”platinum\” customers and include that in the customer\’s information, so that they would be presented with particular offers or receive special handling through customer care.

As if existing issues aren\’t enough, a demographic change is also bound to affect customer service and the type of customer information that customers expect companies to have.

The young, tech-savvy customers that wireless companies want to attract and keep expect a different kind of customer service, according to Bruchey.

\”It\’s a generation that doesn\’t believe they should have to call you for anything – you should know what the problem is and contact them,\” Bruchey said.

Online outlets

Bruchey also noted that the new generation of customers isn\’t shy about relating their experiences on blogs or Internet forums with wide potential reach for influencing other subscribers – and also, potentially a new avenue for harnessing information within social networks and forums.

It used to be, she said, \”that the experts on your products and services were within your four walls. Today, I think some of the best experts that you have on products and services, especially with this tech-literate generation, are outside the four walls. There\’s a lot of great information that \”¦ we could harness and pull back into the organization to leverage within our own call centers,\” Bruchey said.

Bruchey said that carriers are starting to acknowledge the need to integrate customer information across channels, in part by tweaking their leadership structure. Instead of separate channels such as Internet and call centers reporting to different parts of the company, she said, companies are instituting C-level executives in charge of customer service, regardless of channel. Sprint Nextel Corp. (a KANA customer) in May appointed a new chief services officer to head its customer management organization and report directly to CEO Gary Forsee.

\”I think people are diligently trying to get there\” and improve customer information, said Bruchey. \”I think the stovepipes in the organizations have prevented them from doing an integrated multi-channel approach, but I think that\’s changing.\”