Relationship building means paying attention

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I have more relationships than I can handle. I do a so-so job managing up, down and sideways at the office. I do a little better with my gorgeous wife, great kid and lovelorn dog. I do a little worse with my aging mother and doting in-laws, and much worse with my annoying landlord and contentious ex-wife.

Then I struggle to manage relationships with dog-walkers, baby sitters, doormen, dry cleaners, piano teachers, soccer coaches, tech guys, chorus masters, postmen, next-door neighbors, visiting cousins, finance guys, college pals and professional peers. I am maxed out.

I really don't have room for relationships with my fabric softener, my shoes, my dishwasher, my Palm Pilot, my cell phone provider, AOL, my toothpaste or my TV set. And even if I did, I am not sure I'd do any better relating to them.

I guess I should be thrilled that hundreds of corporations have decided to take this burden off my shoulders by investing in customer relationship management programs to keep up, keep track and keep selling me. The problem is I'm an odd duck. So are most people. We don't really do what we say. We can be distracted and rerouted by deals and offers. We change our minds easily and frequently. We take advice from unqualified strangers at cocktail parties. We either don't care about most brands or we care very much but we don't show it.

To help raise your consciousness about the room for relationships in consumers' lives and the need to watch and respond, allow me to cite a few examples from my relationship-rich life. They are not statistically significant. But I have a hunch they reflect the state of the CRM art-the good, the bad, the overengineered and the unfocused.

* NORM THOMPSON

Fifteen years ago, I saw an ad in The Wall Street Journal that read "I make the world's most comfortable socks. If you doubt me, send me your card and I'll send you a free pair." `Norm' sends me a flier about my socks twice a year. I then buy three pairs for $19 twice each year. Do the math. For the cost of a pair of socks and 30 50-cent mailers ($15 over 15 years), Norm has built me into an annuity with a present lifetime value of $570 and a future value worth at least $38/year.

* AMERICAN AIRLINES

I am a mile hog. But American seems to know when and where I fly even though they've never asked me a ton of nosy questions. They post my new points quickly and offer me deals on the routes I fly. They upgrade me much faster than their competitors and generally make me feel like a big shot. I've repaid their largess with frequent use, several incremental vacation-package purchases, light mileage redemption and positive word of mouth.

* AMAZON.COM

The home of the original collaborative filter bedevils me. I purchased 46 books in 2000 using that magical, demonic `1-click buy' feature. When I took a cross-sell offer on a CD player and CDs, I wasn't acknowledged or thanked. Maybe I think I mean more to them than I really do. I haven't felt this way in a relationship since seventh grade.

* BROOKS BROTHERS

I have worn Brooks Brothers Oxford cloth button-down shirts since I was 11. Since they've gone cyber, I have benefited from some great discounts. I'm trying to decide if our relationship is governed by a sophisticated profiling effort linked to an ingenious contact strategy or whether Brooks is desperate to move the goods at lower margins.

* HERTZ

I've been a Gold Card holder for 10 years. I still get a kick seeing my name on those digital boards and being able to bypass the counter. But what's up with their points deal? They offer me all kinds of irrelevant coupons. Is it still a relationship when one side no longer pays attention? Have they noticed I haven't rented from them in eight months?

* DANUBE

David Bouley has been the "chef of the moment" in New York for 20 years; Danube is his shrine. David keeps the checks of his 400 most frequent diners in a shoe box under the bar. His captains note wine choices and tips given. The box lists which drinks, wines and desserts you've tried, so the waiters know what to suggest and how to up-sell you. The technology is vintage 18th century. Being pampered by one of the world's great chefs is sublime.

Ultimately, managing customer relationships is about paying attention. The technology facilitates collecting and analyzing data about your customers. But the game is won or lost in using the data at the right time with the right customers.

Mr. Flamberg is senior VP-managing director at Digitas, based in London (dflamberg@digitas.com), and leads its e-tailing practice. His opinions are his own.

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