It's about the customer

Technology should be helping companies avoid giving bad service to the customers they most want to be loyal. It should be triggering warnings when you're likely to close your accounts, or trying to get even more of your money.

"I'd like to close my cheque account."

"Have you got your cheque book? We prefer to have it to close accounts. Each cheque is worth five cents."

"Oh. I don't care about the money. I haven't got my cheque book. Can I close the account without it?"

"We prefer to have it to close accounts."

"You prefer ... so you won't close it without my cheque book?" I smile to show I won't bite.

She smiles too, wary. "No, we won't."

I wonder if they wondered why I am closing my account. They didn't ask. (Sadly, the actual closing was even worse.)

The future of customer relationship management (CRM) lies in conversations like this not happening. Technology should be helping these companies avoid giving bad service to the customers they most want to be loyal. It should be triggering warnings when you're likely to close your accounts, or trying to get even more of your money.

This stuff is basic, but too many companies have islands of information, not only between applications and systems but within applications because of a lack of functionality (buying new technology has to be cheaper than luring new customers). So CRM software could be isolated from valuable information in transaction batching technology, or in corporate financial systems, or in supply chain systems. The future of CRM lies in linking all these systems, spotting customer trends, offering niche financial services or clever combos. Coupled with business activity monitoring software, which spots things interesting and odd across all data flows, and perhaps exposed through corporate portals, CRM in its broadest sense could not only make customers happier but also more profitable.

Of course, banks are an easy target, moving from counter to ATM, phone and internet so quickly, giving the appearance in busy centres of being understaffed and underbranched. I see one is now offering zero account charges based on the aggregated balance of all your accounts -- part of the reason I moved banks. But banks are far from alone in alienating their customers.

Stepping back for a second, we can see that, despite all the bad press CRM has attracted of late -- "CRM is dead" etc -- most firms are pleased with both their business results from the suites and from app vendors. That's if we can extrapolate the results of a Forrester Research survey of over 100 large companies in the US. How can this be? Forrester suggests it’s that the successful ones focus on the customer experiences they deliver rather than the technology they deploy. Hear hear!

There is a lot of talk about making applications and whole organisations customer-facing. For customers, read those who buy your stuff, business partners, suppliers and even staff. Only stupid companies won't realise this. Stupid companies today will, I hope, be defunct companies in a decade.

Far more IT execs cite resistance to process change when asked about problems than the ills of back-end integration or the cost of the software. Good CRM will deliver good service because staff have been trained and believe in the changes.

If you’re a CRM-ed firm you can expect to invest more in customer analytics, sales tools and online self-service that doesn’t just fob off customers but actually has quality loops. Expect a lot more mobility demands from staff, on PDAs, phones and notebooks. Expect more firms to rent CRM packages designed for the web. Expect to see more companies touting increased productivity as a result of CRM, slower-emerging but very real returns, and fewer failures. We’ve all got smarter on how not to do CRM. Mapping your business processes is part of it; more realistic expectations and buy-in across business unit heads are obvious others.

If you haven’t decided on your CRM package, expect to get a marketing pounding from the Microsoft bombers. I polled several specialists in the industry, and the unknown shape of Redmond’s CRM has them watching warily. One thought is that if Microsoft messes it up and doesn’t deliver customer successes, CRM will get an even worse name. Given the complexity of the market, some expect Microsoft to have more than one go at it.

In the end, though, the vendor is irrelevant. It’s about making sure that wavering customer doesn’t close his account. Really.

Broatch is Computerworld's deputy editor and an ex-Westpac customer. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.