GUEST COLUMN: Dawn M. DiMartino

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Have b-to-b marketers cracked the customer code? The short answer-no. The longer answer starts about five years ago, when the Customer Relationship Management craze started. In one year, from 2000 to 2001, the CRM business grew 167% to become a $10 billion industry.

At that time, according to eMarketer Inc., more than 80% of businesses were placing a high priority on CRM initiatives, and 52% of Siebel Systems' sales were coming from new clients purchasing CRM software during the first quarter of 2001.

Over the years, scores of CRM books have preached the need for businesses to "know thy customer." In fact, customer-based business strategy gurus Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, who had a hand in launching and defining the global CRM movement, recently presented businesses with a metric to end all metrics-"return on customer" (ROC). On their Web site, Larry Kudlow of Kramer & Kudlow predicted, "Soon you'll be hard-pressed to find a company that isn't tracking ROC."

How do you gain an accurate and comprehensive portrait of the customer? The problem is that to track any metric, a company needs data to analyze. Oh, most companies have lots of data; but are they good data, recent data, relevant data, important data? Maybe. Then again, maybe not.

The reality is that many companies have multiple data networks that do not communicate with one another. They are not networked for ROC performance. You might be part of a business that has departmental integration achieving the "single customer view" across the value chain, but what about when the customers are not interacting directly with your brand?

With today's fractionalized media, customers have multiple devices and can go to not one, two or even 10 places to gain knowledge about your brand; they can go to hundreds.

In fact, they are creating their own media right now. This relatively new technology (read: the Web) has allowed every individual to have their own channel (read: blogging). Some even have their own radio stations. Just log onto, click on "create your own radio station" and for $9.95 you're a radio jock. You pick the genre, you create the content and you gain access to listeners around the world.

The corollary to the fractionalized media movement is the rise of the "individuated customer." Some may argue that it's the other way around. Just when you seem to get a handle on the customer, it seems they become even more unique. Each one a snowflake, no two alike. True one-to-one marketing is required. Imagine the business rules for that set of interactions. And for b-to-b marketers, it's double trouble because it turns out that business people are consumers, too.

So how do you build a solid marketing plan around unpredictable customer priorities?

It's not easy. We need to break down internal silos and improve the online customer experience. We need to expand our information systems and make sure we're networked internally and externally across the value chain. We need to improve the quality of our data, and deploy technology to manage direct marketing and improve marketing measurement.

Let's face it. Most of us are no further ahead than we were five years ago. OK, maybe a little further ahead. You're doing some data hygiene, yet your systems still don't talk with one another. You're dropping cookies and trying to follow your customers around the Web before the corporate or personal cookie washer strikes. And you've even been implementing dialogue marketing programs to deepen those customer relationships.

Don't get me wrong, these are the right things to be doing. It's tough work, but it's work that must be done because, as Peppers and Rogers would say, customers are a company's scarcest resource. So at all costs, protect them, understand them, relate to them. As a former boss once said: It's all about progress, not perfection.

Dawn M. DiMartino is director, integrated marketing at AT&T Corp. She can be reached at [email protected]

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