Marketing services agencies take lead in CRM

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In the late '90s, customer relationship management (CRM) emerged as a technological strategy for improving the way in which companies managed customer service and relations. New CRM software upgraded company operations by automating and integrating marketing, sales and service.

Scores of b-to-b companies adopted solutions from technology suppliers to drive their success with CRM. For more than a decade, many blue-chip companies have been investing heavily in CRM systems and technology. With all this experience behind us, the time has come to ask ourselves a tough question: Has CRM lived up to its potential?

The answer, as we now know, is often "not really."

Over the years, our understanding of CRM has evolved, and we know that to be successful, CRM needs to involve much more than just software. We have found that successful CRM results from a new business model, one that radically reorients organizations to focus on customers instead of products and departments.

Great products are no longer viewed as the sole key to marketplace success. Instead, companies with exceptional customer intelligence have a competitive edge. They know who their customers are, what they truly want, how they think and what they feel. Using CRM as a strategy means the relentless pursuit of deep customer insight, coupled with the will to use that knowledge to drive product development, marketing, sales and even service.

Long before the introduction of CRM solutions, many companies already had the technology to develop deep customer insight. What they lacked was a compelling strategic rationale for making such investment a priority. This is why the marketing services industry is emerging as the new CRM leader.

Agency success has always derived from accurate insight into the hearts and minds of customers. While b-to-b clients were focusing on operations, we were focusing on how technology could be used to add depth and nuance to our understanding of clients' customers.

As a result, we discovered that CRM could be better implemented-but we saw it too often fail because the large upfront financial commitment lacked a solid strategic foundation.

Today, advertising and marketing agencies have embraced technology and applied their strategic thinking and customer-centric philosophies to develop more targeted, effective CRM programs. Clients are turning to agencies to help develop programs that keep customers engaged with a brand while building loyalty and simultaneously measuring ROI.

So the question still remains: "Why are marketing services agencies emerging as the new leaders in the CRM world?"

The answer is simple. Marketing services agencies have for years taken deep consumer insight and applied it to their strategic approach to CRM programs. We've always been held accountable for our solutions, and pride ourselves on precise measurement.

In our ROI-driven world, companies can't successfully push their products with no real understanding of customer behavior or by turning a blind eye to building loyalty. Agencies that have built a strong strategic planning and research department-and integrated it-are in a perfect position to develop even more effective CRM programs.

Agencies can then take a behavior-based approach, focusing on analyzing consumer-client dialogue to actually give customers control of what messages consumers are receiving and how. And it results in marketing programs that are the brainchild of a strategy based on consumer data and insight.

The learning aspect of CRM should never end. B-to-b companies should continue to ask themselves: "How can we continue to reach people more effectively?"

CRM in many ways can be thought of as dating. For the relationship to blossom, trust has to continue to grow even after the initial relationship has been established. B-to-b marketers should always be courting the customer-especially in today's customer-driven world.

Richard Whitney is senior VP-director, Marketing Database Services, at Draft New York.

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