CRM responsiveness: The opportunity under our noses

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The foundation of any relationship is conversation. At a high level, it might be an exchange of ideas. At its simplest, I ask a question and you answer. Seems to me it's the basis of respect. Yet, when the conversation is between a corporation and a customer not in the immediate buy cycle, something goes awry.

I've conducted an email responsiveness survey annually since 2001; it's really a litmus test of how well a stated commitment to CRM filters down to the individual customer. I put on my customer hat and ask companies a simple question by email. The subject line of the email is “Customer Service” and the question I ask is, “What is your corporate policy regarding the turnaround time for emails addressed to customer service?” One customer, one dopey question. I only tally the answers.

The database I use consists of the Financial Times' Most Respected Companies, Fortune's Most Admired Companies and The Reputation Institute's Most Respected Companies. These include such companies as Amazon, Apple Inc., Berkshire Hathaway, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Microsoft Corp.

This year, we added a new segment to the database,'s list of Most Hated Companies, which includes Bank of America, Dish Network, plus several cable companies, utilities and airlines.

Results of my annual responsiveness survey have never been worse: 34% of companies answered our question. Last year, it was 51%. The highest response was in 2002 when 86% of companies provided an answer.

By anyone's measure these are terrible results. It also appears out of sync with the tools and sophistication in the marketplace. What's going on? Here are two clues:

First, almost eight out of 10 of the answers we received specifically referenced a corporate policy of responding to customers within a one- to two-day period. The time frame is certainly important because after two days even the best of us start to get testy. But what's really resonant here is that a tightly defined corporate policy exists, which implies that both measurement and reward systems are present.

Second, while the fewest companies in numbers answered our question this year, there is a core team that answers us every year. These include 3M Co., Apple, Barnes & Noble, Berkshire Hathaway, Home Depot, L.L. Bean and Red Envelope.

Here's my take on these results:

Corporations tend to embrace CRM and shy away from the individual interaction, which can be messy and time-consuming. CRM drives profits while individual interaction is a cost. But this seems crazy to me, and here's why.

Arguably, online retailers stand to gain by using customer service as a competitive differentiator. Recently, customer experience company Tealeaf Technology conducted a survey among attendees at Forrester Research's Customer Experience Forum. While 87% said online customer experience management was “more important now than ever before,” only half had implemented strategies and methods for measuring results.

Further, many customers re-evaluate their relationships with a company with each interaction. How that moment is handled will either reinforce or blow-up your future potential with that customer. And remember, unhappy customers not only go away—they post, blog, tweet and text.

Companies that implement their commitment to the customer as a strategic product, with measurement and reward, recognize its contribution towards sales and profits. As a result, the strategy drives focused and vigilant attention to the customer interaction.

The bottom line is that there is enormous opportunity right under our corporate noses. Tools are ineffective without strategy. In a world gone flat, how you handle the customer interaction becomes a defining part of your brand. It can be a powerful differentiator and a lever for success, or not.

Scott Hornstein is principal with direct marketing consultancy Hornstein Associates ( . He can be reached at [email protected]

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