The frontline employees are a key connection for managing customer information because they frequently collect it. Whether they’re retail sales clerks or highly trained technical salespeople, they’re your customer interface. As a result, you must decide what the employees need to know to make their data collection easier.
There’s a caution here. It’s possible to jeopardize your business strategy by putting the details into too many hands. Your frontline employees don’t want or need all the details of your customer relationship strategy. What they do need is a reasonable explanation that will answer their questions and satisfy their curiosity, so they’ll be motivated to gather the information. And they need a reasonable explanation they can give to curious customers, so they can motivate your customers to provide the information.
Several years ago, a large retail organisation wanted to know its customers’ addresses so it could determine what geographic area they were coming from. This data, they reasoned, could help them focus their marketing efforts more tightly. In point of fact, the management didn’t need the whole addresses – just the city would have sufficed – but someone thought it might do some good down the line to have full addresses.
That was a problem, though. When the checkout clerks asked customers for their addresses, the customers hesitated at the idea of giving a retailer such personal information. In fact, many of the sales clerks thought the question was intrusive, too. As a result, the employees soon learned to stop asking. Instead, they simply made up addresses to satisfy their quota for the day. The result? Suspicious customers, annoyed checkout clerks and totally worthless data.
The problem could have been remedied up front by first determining exactly what information was needed, then conducting some very simple training for the checkout clerks.
A relatively small amount of work up front can save countless customer relationships, limit ill will among the employees toward management and most important, yield the necessary information.
To share or not to share?
Customer information is your edge in the customer relationship. As an organisation, you want as much information as you can get about each customer because it gives you a better idea how to service him or her. However, when you’re dealing with complex, highly profitable relationships, the salespeople have very real issues about the information you might be requesting: too much information shared among others in the sales force could result in internal sabotage.
The key to ensuring this doesn’t happen is recognizing that the salesperson’s contact with the customer is important. Whether they’re high-end retail transactions or more complex business-to-business relationships, the company will only lose if it doesn’t respect the salesperson-client relationship.
At the same time, your salespeople may like to hoard their data because they have unfounded fears of internal sabotage. In this case, the answer is to go back to your strategy and determine exactly what information you need. Explain to the salespeople why you need the information and what exactly will be done with it. Then collect no more and no less from them.
Details, details, details
Even the simplest customer database can store a multitude of data about your customers. That’s great if you know what to glean from the file but it also can become confusing for the people using the database on a daily basis.
The goal is to find the right level of information that makes your operation efficient but also ensures that the customer feels comfortable dealing with you. The second the customer feels you’re invading his or her privacy is the second you drive a wedge into your relationship. That will vary for every company, every customer and sometimes for every transaction.
For example, a large health clinic may know intimate details about its customers’ health and that’s fine because the customers want that knowledge available at the clinic so the treatments are efficient. That same information at the fingertips of a telephone receptionist becomes disconcerting.
When deciding what information will be available to all employees with customer contact, it is advisable to divide the information in your customer database into three types. Breakdowns for tail operation might be:
Essential to know: Examples – customer’s name, address (correct spelling and pronunciation) and phone number and whether Mr, Mrs, Ms or Dr, etc.
Nice to know: Examples – How customer has paid, how long been a customer, what customer usually purchases, any complaints.
For manager’s eyes only: Examples – customer’s age, income level, family details, education level, whether cooperative in survey participations.
The way you use your database can provide opportunities to jeopardize the customer relationship.
A large catalogue company decided to tie all its information about its customers into its customer service network. When a customer would call, the computer would display the information before the customer service employee even answered the phone. The customer service workers soon discovered they could take advantage of this information and boost their per-call sales records. “I see you have purchased children’s clothing in the past, Mrs. Silva. Are your children in need of new shirts? We have a good stock on them.”
Instead of making the purchases, though, the customers started to feel uncomfortable that this unidentified person knew so much about them. Sales overall declined and customer satisfaction with the customer service department plummeted.
To prevent such calamities, it is advisable to prepare levels as a guide for providing access to the information. The first level can be available immediately. The second might come up on the computer screen only after the customer service worker requests more information. The third can be easily screened so it’s available only to management.
Even when you carefully craft data and information collection efforts to match your customer relationship management (CRM) strategy and your overall business strategy, you may find yourself with more numbers than you could possibly digest in a lifetime of customer analysis.
However, with just a few legal and ethical caveats, you can use this information for many purposes that can help you spot trends within your customer base. Here are some tactics to try:
(1) Analyse the data against last year, three years ago, and five years ago. Even if you’re looking at aggregate numbers such as total customer interactions, differences of more than 5 percent could signal a trend.
(2) Cross-reference the information. Simple computer programmes can take two sets of data and combine them. In that way, you can find out if your customers between 30 - 40 years old spend the most money while those 50 to 60 spend the least, for example, nice to know for targeting prospects and planning your product line.
(3) Pinpoint major problems. Information retrieved through surveys can point you to major problems you hadn’t realized. For example, if you’re wondering why no one is using your new online ordering system, customers may tell you that they don’t own computers, that it’s too confusing or that they simply like the sound of a human voice.
(4) Compare the customer data to your business data. Did your customer demographics change at the same time your sales in one product line soared? You may have discovered a new psycho graphic component to your customer base.
(5) Monitor seasonal changes in the data. Look for sales trends (or trends in customer complaints) based on the time of year. That can help you determine staffing or point you to marketing needs during off seasons.
(Lionel Wijesiri is a retired company director with over 30 years’ experience in senior business management. Presently he is a freelance journalist and could be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org)