A CRM success story

You’ve read all the customer relationship management horror stories. You’ve heard the grim statistics from Gartner Inc., which estimates that more than two-thirds of all CRM initiatives fail. So you might wonder why our company, Boise Office Solutions, recently spent US$25 million implementing a CRM system – and be surprised to learn that we are seeing increased customer retention as a result.

Our initiative has been an overwhelming success for one reason: We didn’t simply set out to strengthen our internal processes with CRM. Instead, we started with a clear business objective: to provide our customers with a greater economic value. Only then did we invest in technology to help us meet that goal. Much of the technology turned out to be CRM tools.

The steps we took with our CRM initiative are the same ones we try to follow with all technology projects. Boise Office Solutions has refined this process over the years with several technology projects, including establishing a true B2B e-commerce platform integrated into our supply chain management and implementing a proof-of-delivery system. I’d like to share our process with you and explain why it works.

Know Your Customers, All of Them

I’m surprised at how often companies don’t consider their customers’ needs when making decisions about technology. When we launch a new technology initiative, our first step is to ensure that everyone within our organization, especially the IT department, has a comprehensive understanding of our business strategies and customers’ needs. We accomplish that by pulling together a cross-functional team of business and IT managers.

The first step is to properly define the customer. We sell office products to businesses, and in a B2B industry such as ours, there is a tendency to consider the purchasing manager of the company with whom you have a contract as the customer. But within every customer organization there are a number of people, in many cases thousands, who order from us every day.

When you add up all contacts with these individual buyers, some of our customers interact with us 400,000 times per year.

All of our customers have specific needs. For example, we found that customers sometimes need specialized help when ordering products such as technology accessories and furniture, so we have product experts and call queues dedicated to taking those calls. Before we invest in technologies to serve different kinds of customers, it’s imperative that we have a clear understanding of their individual needs.

Turn the Focus Outside-In

Many companies make the mistake of organizing their business in terms of how they bring their products or services to their customers. The problem with that approach is that you lose sight of the customer’s perspective. You can have the most leading-edge technology available, but if it’s easier for customers to do business with one of your competitors, chances are they won’t stay with you for long.

Before planning our CRM initiative, leaders from our business strategy and IT teams mapped out every kind of contact our customers can have with our organization. Although this exercise may sound simplistic, in practice it is a very complex undertaking. The customer touchpoint map details how all of our individual customers within a company, from purchasing professionals to administrative assistants, interact with Boise. For example, customers might contact a sales representative, call a customer service center, accept a delivery from one of our drivers, or order products online or via fax. In essence, we created an outside-in view of our processes.

It was important that IT staff participate in this touchpoint-mapping exercise because it gave them valuable insights into how our customers use our technology, both directly and indirectly. That helped our IT team focus on the specific technologies that would improve service to our customers and weed out those that weren’t right for our goals. For example, instead of buying a complete end-to-end CRM suite, we chose individual software applications for customer interaction and campaign management that met specific customer needs and integrated them with our existing order-processing technologies.

Develop IT Strategies for Specific Customer Needs

Once the IT department has a comprehensive understanding of how customers interact with your company, it can play a pivotal role in developing and executing business strategies. At Boise, we create cross-functional teams that pair IT leaders with our business development managers. The teams outline specific customer needs, then determine the technology strategies that will bring the best possible solutions to the customer.

Make Implementation Easy on Your Customers, Not Your Company

Don’t lose sight of your customers when implementing technology strategies. Boise’s CRM initiative would not be a success if we had inconvenienced our customers. Because we applied new technology to our two largest customer channels, phone and Web, it was paramount that both remain fully functional.

To minimize the effect of the transition on our customers, the IT and business development teams outlined all of the steps in our CRM initiative and how each step could potentially affect customers. For example, one step involved cleansing and loading 2.2 million customer and contact records from multiple disparate databases into a single customer profile database. To prevent disruption to customers, this exercise was performed during nonbusiness hours.

Create a Customer-Focused Culture

The last thought I’ll leave you with is that adapting a customer-focused approach to technology in most companies requires a cultural change. IT is often viewed as a department that supports all of the other functions of a company. Unless the entire company is committed to viewing its systems from the customers’ perspective, IT will continuously be asked to support projects that meet the short-sighted goals of internal departments. As CEO, a key part of my responsibility is to make sure that the entire company understands the value of our new CRM systems and business model. I stayed very close to the work, and I personally presented our new capabilities to many of our customers.

The onus is on management to lead by example and push for a customer focus on every project. If a proposed plan isn’t right for your customers, don’t do it. Send your teams back to the drawing board to come up with a solution that will work. Your customers will reward you in the long run.