Helping Customers Help Themselves

Customer Relationship Management has put on a new face in the few short years it’s been around. In the mid-1990s, bridges began to be built between back-office and front-office systems, enabling, for example, a customer service rep to find out the status of an order or a salesperson to check inventory while talking to a customer.

But even though that made life a little easier, it was still a relatively minor improvement in the business process. “The problem was,” says Barton Goldenberg, president of ISM Inc. in Bethesda, Md., which annually publishes The Guide to CRM Automation, “that it was all internal-facing.”

Traditional CRM systems helped the employees who deal with customers to do their jobs. But a new breed of CRM systems, sometimes called customer-facing applications, helps customers more directly. A large subset of this new breed falls into a category called eCRM, with the ‘e’ standing, as it usually does these days, for electronic – which really means online.

The idea is to let the online customer – who almost by definition is a relatively sophisticated customer seeking convenience and quick service – go straight to the source to verify product availability, place orders, check order status or have other questions answered quickly and accurately. “It extends the enterprise out to the customer,” Goldenberg says. In the process, the technology can give customers more information and more control.

eCRM in Action

Vancouver-based IntraWest Corp. operates a string of skiing resorts across North America. Last year the company started allowing its customers to book their ski trips through its Web site. But Matthew Dunn, IntraWest’s Chief Information Officer, felt IntraWest would be missing an opportunity if it kept the online booking service separate from other operations, so IntraWest takes information from the Web booking system and uses it to improve customer service in other ways. For instance, when a customer books a visit to an IntraWest resort online, the system asks for information about the customer’s skiing plans, and what equipment that individual or family will need to rent during the visit. Staff at the resort’s rental shops use this information to prepare necessary equipment. When customers arrive at the rental shop, what they need is ready and waiting.

“It’s more efficient for us to put together a vacation for someone when we’re informed about the details in advance,” Dunn says. “It costs us less, and more importantly it’s a better experience for the guest.” Experience with the one rental shop that did a lot of pre-booking last season shows that labour costs are reduced, guests are more satisfied, and – interestingly – staff also are happier. Dunn says employees who worked in that shop asked, when coming back this season, to work in the same shop again.

However, he admits, there is one “significant gotcha.” Once you collect information from customers online, he says, “they now assume that you know [that information], which means the service expectations are now higher. As long as you can deliver on those expectations, great.” If guests are asked for the same information again, however, they will feel the company has wasted their time. That’s a common problem, Austin says. “Customers are becoming more aware of some of the potential out there, and it’s changing their expectations.”

Customers use e-commerce sites for one or more of three reasons, Goldenberg maintains. They are looking for lower prices, faster and more convenient service, or improved quality. Different customers have different priorities, but all have serious expectations when they do business online, and if you fail to meet those expectations the competition, as the clich