Out with CRM – in with a Fantastic Customer Experience


CRM has become more about getting customer knowledge and less about getting customers to want to do business with you. By Sally Pollock of Budd

With the focus on technology, we seem to have forgotten the importance of internal culture and human assets to in generating fantastic experiences and inspiring customer loyalty.

I have always been passionate about customer service. And why not? I spend most of my life being a customer and therefore have a vested interest. So you can imagine my excitement, when words such as globalisation, deregulation, market saturation and hyper-competitiveness were ditched from the executive agenda and replaced with customer-focus, customer-orientation and customer relationship management.

It appeared that companies were starting to get it. That putting the customer at the heart of your business was a mighty fine idea and the key to increased revenue, profit and growth. The academics and technologists were quick to jump on the customer bandwagon and a whole new science was born – Customer Relationship Management (CRM). I call it a science, because you need a degree in three letter acronyms and diagram interpretation to get your head around most publications on the subject. With the creation of CRM, SCM (Supply Chain Management), CLCM (Customer Life Cycle Management) and ETFS (Engage, Transact, Fulfil and Service!), we seem to have lost sight what being a customer-focused organisation is really about.

What is it we are really trying to achieve? Well, what we’d really like is for customers to enjoy doing business with us so much that they come back time and time again, call us to find out what other products and services we offer and recommend us to all their friends, thus halving the marketing budget and increasing their value to us as a customer. So what is it that generates this sense of loyalty in us as customers?

Allow me to give you an example. My colleagues and I regularly venture out of the office for lunch. Like many city dwellers, we’re spoiled for choice in the number of cafés that offer the required soups, sandwiches and salads and ashtrays to cater for everyone’s needs. But we always go to the same place. Why? It’s not the food, the décor, or the price as this place is certainly below average in two of the three aforementioned categories. It’s the people. They’re happy, friendly and seemingly can’t do enough to make sure that our visit each day is thoroughly enjoyable to the extent that any rules they may have appear to be broken to accommodate our requirements.

Ask yourself why you use certain companies and I’m sure you’ll find the answer is the same. Products and services vary only slightly in features and pricing, but the experience we have in dealing with an organisation varies dramatically and has an incredible influence over our ‘loyalty’. Let’s be really honest, most of the time if we ‘like’ a company and the way it’s people interact with us, we often don’t even bother to find out what the competition are doing.

One way of looking at it…..

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not a complete technophobe who believes that the key to successful business lies in feeding your employees happy pills and to hell with process and systems, because clearly just being nice to customers isn’t enough (although it would certainly be a start!) No. In the quest for customer loyalty there is a place where all three factors come together to create experiences that customers like you and I get excited about – to the extent that we bore our relatives and friends with our tales of superior service and pat ourselves on the back for our great find.

Brilliant Basics is about just getting it right first time for the customer. Being consistent in everything you do and ensuring that everything works to just merely deliver what the customer has asked.

Branded personality is where differentiation starts. Where the collective values and personality of your people ooze through every pore of the organisation. This is your opportunity to excite me in your quirky style of communication through marketing literature, web site pages, phone and email responses and where your people go the extra mile or bend a few rules to keep me happy. This is where I start to like you.

The wow factor is where you impress me with your ability to promote products based on what you know about me, know when, how and why I last interacted with you and generally give me the impression that you ‘know me’ (even though I know you have 5 billion customers and that couldn’t possibly be the case).

Customer loyalty is born when all three areas are in sync. I won’t be impressed with your latest list of recommended books suited to my taste, if the last time I called your call centre agent was rude. Neither will I tolerate ‘happy Hilary’ and her talent in customer interaction if my bank statement has been wrong three months on the trot. You get the picture.

As a customer, I’ve decided that CRM is not working for me. I don’t want my relationships ‘managed’; I want to do business with companies that truly deserve my loyalty. CRM is out – now it’s AAM, ‘All About Me’!

So, if customer loyalty is your end goal, where do you start?

Get the right people…..

As Albert Einstein said, ‘All means prove but a blunt instrument if they have not behind them a living spirit’! In other words, it starts with the people. Now getting the right people on board may seem like a statement of the obvious in the extreme, as clearly nobody sets out to recruit the wrong people, but it depends on your definition of right. Generally speaking, people are recruited for the knowledge, skills and experience that they will bring to the role, which is a sensible recruitment strategy and critical to maintaining the core competency of the business. But recruiting to that alone will not deliver you an organisation of people who live and breathe the brand values, who grab every opportunity to deal with customer complaints and who whoop and cheer when the customer satisfaction indicator goes up by 1%! So what will?

Many organisations place more importance on ‘cultural fit’ in the interview process than they do anything else. Companies like MBNA, SW Airlines and Virgin Atlantic are more interested in the personal attributes that an individual will bring to the organisation than their technical abilities. Now cultural fit can mean different things to different people, but in customer focused organisations it usually comes back to one thing – recruit service-oriented people; people who put others before themselves and, as Steven Covey (major Guru in the management and leadership arena) would say, people who think win-win. Jack Welsh (of GE fame) also endorses this philosophy, his strategy being simply to recruit great people – you can teach them the rest!

Getting your hands on some of these great people might mean a slight variation from the usual competency based interviews and hard skills testing. Assessment centres have become the latest fashion, where individuals are observed in a variety of scenarios and selected on their ability to interact with others and this is definitely a step in the right direction. There are some companies that have introduced rather more innovative methods of recruitment. One major airline asks their candidates to present a topic to the other potential new recruits, but they have absolutely no interest in the candidate’s ability to present. Instead, they are watching for the reaction of the audience. Those that are listening intently and generally displaying body language that offers moral support, thus demonstrating respect and empathy, pass the test. Peer interviews are becoming more popular, because if the people that already work here don’t think you’ll fit in, you probably won’t. Referral schemes are also a good idea as great people tend to hang around with other great people, so who better to find new additions to the talent pool!

…and keep them.

So you’ve got your self motivated, others oriented, results driven, positive thinking new team on board, but the trouble with great people is that they require a great environment within which to thrive, one that reinforces the values that attracted them in the first place. Several factors affect people’s loyalty to an organisation, but keeping your eye on some of the common elements may help you retain your talent.

1. Communicate the mission – everyone needs a raison d’etre, so be bold, be loud and be clear about the organisations purpose and how each individual goals align to contribute to its achievement.
2. Set expectations up front – sounds obvious, but one not to be forgotten. I worked for an organisation that required everyone to take customer calls each month. Failure to set that expectation through the recruitment process would have cost a fortune in attrition 1 month down the line in the typically less customer focused areas of the business!
3. Maximise talent – we’re all guilty of homing in on development needs, but if we ignore talents, we end up with a bunch of average people. And who wants average?
4. Only hire emotionally intelligent managers – poor relationships with line managers is a big factor affecting attrition. Holding 1:1 sessions with the people that report in to your direct reports (2 downs) is a good way of keeping your eye on this.
5. Make opinions count – we’re all opinionated and like to be heard, so if you don’t have a formal process for filtering ideas through the organisation and rewarding the great ones, get one. The people with all the knowledge and talent tend to be the one’s actually doing the job.
6. Recognise and reward the right things – we don’t do this enough, but one company does it very well. All senior executives listen to calls every month and when a great example of customer service is heard, a letter of gratitude is delivered in person to the individual (I still have mine!). And pay; let’s not kid ourselves. It counts. So create salary bands where people can be rewarded for excelling at what they do without having to progress up the management ladder.
7. Trust your people – Jack Welsh once said ‘Hierarchy is an organisation with its face toward the CEO and its ass toward the customer’. Assume everyone comes to work to do a great job, minimise bureaucracy and empower your people to make the right decisions for customers.
8. Be the brand – people behave as they are lead. Enough said.

Having sorted your people out, you’ve now created the potential to deliver fantastic customer experiences. But it’s still only potential. So how do you unleash this potential to deliver brilliant basics, with branded personality and wow me? The phrase ‘putting the customer at the heart of your business’ suggests an internal mastermind chair in which customer of the month is expected to sit and observe the chaos and pandemonium of the days events while responding to questions from the head of marketing on their chosen subject of customer satisfaction! Clearly not a function any one of us would choose to perform – so what does it really mean?

Create a culture of ‘customer’

The trick is to get everyone in the organisation to put themselves in the customer’s shoes in everything they do, to ‘be the customer’. Not so alien to customer facing departments, but getting everyone to think from the customers perspective is more of a challenge. It’s a shift in mindset from ‘Customer service is what the call centre do,’ to ‘Customer service is what we all do’. Some possible ways to shift the mindset:

Invent a language – this could be always spelling the word customer with a capital C, substituting the word ‘people’ for ‘staff’, or eliminating ‘I/we can’t’ from your company’s vocabulary. Weaving your customer culture in to the common language of the organisation reinforces the message every day.

Redefine the customer interface – have everyone in the organisation speak to customers for a period of time every month. It focuses every department on what really counts and keeps everyone in touch with current feedback from customers. It’s amazing how well thought through marketing campaigns become when it’s not just the call centre that will have to deal with the resulting calls! The same is true of complaints. Problems get solved very quickly when customer complaints are routed back to the source of the problem for a response.

Avoid silo working – move people around. A manager is a manager is a manager and can therefore manage any area of the business. Stategically moving your management team around facilitates transfer of knowledge around the business and gives everyone a solid view of the whole customer experience.

Manage peaks collectively – peaks in workload move around the business. Save overtime costs by creating voluntary task forces from around the business to home in on the peak. It develops the individual and is a good profile raiser. Generally only works if you have a culture of internal promotion and progression not defined entirely by technical expertise.

Build fantastic experiences internally – internal service excellence drives external service excellence. Put everyone through communication skills and service excellence training to set the standard internally. Treating everyone as a customer, managers to subordinates, facilities to HR representatives, makes for a great environment within which to work.

Celebrate internal and external fantastic customer experience – rewarding the right behaviours encourages more of the same, as we all know. Do it loudly, visibly, publicly, and frequently.

Be the brand – people behave as they are led. It keeps coming back.

This may all sound a bit like a Famous Five picnic with lashings of custard. But if you’ve recruited the right people, being the customer is second nature. The bigger challenge is if your existing organisation needs a cultural makeover. This takes time, but it starts with just one tempered radical making small waves of change.

Let’s assume you’ve got your great people and they’re all ‘being the customer’, the rest really takes care of itself. Getting the brilliant basics right is part of the culture, because great people take responsibility when things go wrong and will fight the system if it isn’t right. Delivering a branded personality through every pore is second nature, because great people believe the brand values and translate them in to action every day. Wowing the customer is a habit, because great people are always striving for bigger and better. But it is still a good idea to look at the customer experience and make sure it is fantastic.

Review the customer’s experience…….

The customers experience is often less than fantastic because everyone owns a part of it, but nobody owns the whole thing (Except of course, the CEO, but she’s a very busy woman!). Often the sum of the parts are not at all greater than the whole, but they do make a whole lot of inconsistency, undelivered promises, buck passing and frustration. This is one scenario where having the bigger picture is handy and a bonus if one person is responsible for it.

Then it’s simply a case of mapping out the customer lifecycle, defining ‘fantastic’ at every stage (and here’s your opportunity to really differentiate), review how you fair against fantastic at each stage and then fix the bits that aren’t so fantastic.

So, you’re great people are busy ‘being the customer’ and fantastic experiences are coming out of your ears, but is it generating customer loyalty?

…And measure the effect

Internal satisfaction is often a good place to start. If the people of a company aren’t happy, you can guarantee that dissatisfaction will be passed on to the customer.

We’re good at setting internal measures that tell us we’re doing a great job, but tell us little about how customers feel – phones answered within, accounts opened within, goods delivered within, sound familiar?

We sometimes stretch to gaining customer feedback through the annual questionnaire sent out by the marketing department which is relatively non specific, but all the good bits get published on the company intranet anyway.

When it comes to finding out if the brilliant basics, branded personality and added value stuff is having an effect there are only two questions we need to ask –

  • Do we have your loyalty? (If not, why?)
  • Do we deserve your loyalty? (If not, why?)

So let’s put the CRM science to bed and remember that the fantastic experiences that generate loyalty are born out of great people just doing the right thing and having some fun in the process.

I leave you with the words of Guy Browning,

‘The one thing you have to do in business is to ‘make it happen’ for your customers. Sadly, when people start talking about customers, they stop talking sense.’


By Sally Pollock of BuddSally has 10 years experience in contact centre management and training with MBNA and Charles Schwab. She believes passionately that developing the human assets of an organisation is the key to success.
Sally would be happy to enter in to any further discussion or debate on the subject and be contacted by email at www.budd.uk.com

Published On: 2nd Jul 2005 - Last modified: 22nd Mar 2017
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