To Be Truly Customer-Centric, You May Need to Change Your Conversations

A business that’s succeeding at CRM (and that means the discipline of CRM, not the technology) will have come to some realizations. First off, even though the business no longer controls the conversation with the customer, that conversation has never been more important to pay attention to and to respond to in a coherent and, when possible, personalized way.

Second, it’s critical to realize that these relationships are a key part of the customer experience, especially in the era of the social customer. And customer experience, ultimately, is everything. Third, when you try to de-emphasize the customer relationship in favor of the things you’re comfortable focusing on as a business, everything in the business is likely to suffer.

Hitting the Nail on the Head

That was something that jumped out of last week’s open letter from an anonymous Research In Motion employee to the company’s management. The writer listed focus on the customer experience as the No. 1 thing that RIM could do to regain its mojo:

“Let’s obsess about what is best for the end user. We often make product decisions based on strategic alignment, partner requests or even legal advice — the end user doesn’t care. We simply have to admit that Apple is nailing this and it is one of the reasons they have people lining up overnight at stores around the world, and products sold out for months.”

This anonymous employee is nailing it, too — things like strategic alignment, partner requests and legal advice are important, but they should never take priority over the customer experience. They’re parts of the puzzle added for the benefit of the business, not the customer, and so the customer has little concern for them.

But the C-level executives at a company like RIM love those sorts of things — they’re the aspects of the business they feel they have control over. It’s far easier to talk to other individuals in their industry than it is to venture out into the unruly places where customers reside — either virtually or actually. And besides, as most C-level execs will tell you, talking to the customer is not their job.

Figuring Out What’s Best

How do you obsess over what’s best for the end user if you lack not just the mechanisms to observe and understand what “what’s best” looks like, but also the will to start observing? Too many companies have deluded themselves into thinking they were smart enough to guess what customers wanted, and that delusion permitted them to move other business concerns to the front burner — resulting in conditions like those that plague RIM (and a legion of other businesses).

If your CRM approach is right, that will never happen, because you will constantly be reminded of what your customers actually want.

Smart, thoughtful participants in good conversations ask questions and listen — they don’t just talk, because they realizes that if they’re the only one speaking, they’ll be unlikely to learn anything. Neither do they merely listen.

There’s not much value in passively receiving information from customers if they’re not talking about anything that’s important to you. Instead, businesses need to start viewing themselves as “peers” in these conversations, while at the same time engaging strategically when they need to learn specific things.

Imagination and insight into your customers are mandatory if you are to make the conversation both the one your customers wish to have with you and the one that will deliver insight to your business.

In a CRM environment, where the power of the conversation is manifesting itself ever more clearly as customers become more social, the business that knows how to stay focused on what the customers are saying without being distracted by other internally focused conversations stands a far greater chance of success.

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz blogs about CRM at the CRM Outsiders. He has been a technology journalist for 17 years and has immersed himself in the world of CRM since 2006. When he's not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he's wearing his airplane geek hat; he's written three books on World War II aviation.

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