Skeptics blind to CRM's scope

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The recent Advertising Age front-page story "CRM: Shooting holes in the hype" (AA, April 16) brings to mind the famous Indian legend of the blind men and the elephant. Remember?

It was six men of Indostan

To learning much inclined

Who went to see the elephant

(Though all of them were blind)

You know what happens next. The first man stumbles against the elephant's side and thinks it's very much like a wall. The second, touching the tusk, thinks it's very much like a spear. And on and on and on.

The proverbial poking at the elephant is very like poking at the vast dimensions of CRM with one's eyes closed. What you think is there is what you choose to touch. What would work better is to stand back, open your eyes and view the whole phenomenon in its true form.

CRM is important because it represents a fundamental change in thinking about the customer as a long-term business asset rather than simply as a target for buy-sell transactions.

CRM is not just a fancier term for more focused communications or the latest incarnation of "going direct." It represents a recognition that the customer herself or himself is the depository of the future value of the enterprise, to be leveraged and managed for optimum results over time. It is where customer knowledge and customer interaction join forces to drive growth and enhance profitability.

Thinking of the customer as a business asset makes a significant difference. It drives the contrast between planning based on the lifetime of a brand vs. planning for a specific communication program, and between developing a vehicle for continued seller-buyer interaction vs. generating a specific response. This is why what you do for the customer in managing the relationship (CRM) encompasses a wide range of disciplines, including direct marketing, loyalty marketing and one-to-one marketing, rather than being only another term for any of these practices.

NEW HEIGHTS

Almost overnight at the start of the 21st century, info-tech software took CRM to new heights of direct customer involvement while the rush to the Web was changing the mind-set of executive management from an arm's-length customer relationship to unlimited vistas of personalization and customization. Hard-sell call centers were suddenly being transformed into real-time customer-interaction centers. Advanced data analytics and predictive modeling was making an affordable, responsive, mutually rewarding relationship possible for the very first time.

Today, gaining an ultimate competitive advantage comes down to moving the fastest and being the smartest at taking advantage of the new CRM tools and the new rules of engagement. We are in a new marketing environment as different from the past as the change ushered in two generations ago with the arrival of TV in the home. It was the time when Marshall McLu-han proclaimed that henceforth "the medium is the message." There were those in denial who were slow to change but what followed is mass-marketing history, as recorded in the pages of Ad Age.

Our marketing communications world is once again being turned upside down. In this new era, we realize that "the process is the message." While the process becomes the message, we must not lose sight of the continuing importance of the creative articulation in everything we do online and off-line. It's all about how efficiently and effectively we manage the customer relationship, how we use what we know to drive what we do, how we erase the line between product and service, how well we move from being solely focused on the bottom line each quarter to becoming truly customer-satisfaction focused.

CRM is about improving the performance of the entire enterprise, not simply about how we communicate with the marketplace. It's much more than just loyalty. It's much more than the latest version of direct marketing. It's much more than the latest example of one-to-one interaction. It's much more than the next wave of systems architecture efficiency. It's all of the preceding-and very much more.

Make no mistake about it. This CRM heavyweight is one smart, humongous elephant. Be careful. Spending your time poking at it, instead of learning how to tame and ride it, can be very dangerous to your health. Remember how the legend ends:

And so the men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right,

And all were in the wrong.

Mr. Rapp is chairman-CEO, McCann Relationship Marketing, New York.

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