Redefining CRM: relationships are about experiences, not channels

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Brands need to widen the terms of what is considered 'CRM'.

Agencies and clients often think of Customer Relationship Marketing (CRM) in very narrow terms, focused solely on what channels are being used. But most of us would agree that the opportunity to strengthen, change or damage a relationship occurs at every brand interaction.

Wouldn’t it be better if we all began to consider all of our activity; online, offline, digital, real life, and the product or service itself, to be a form of CRM?

Ask a typical agency or brand manager how they would define CRM and they would probably describe it along these lines: ‘Direct communications between a customer and a brand, with the aim of building a long-term relationship with the customer, and delivered via email, DM or another 1-2-1 channel.’

As our ability to analyse, interpret and utilise customer data has grown exponentially, so has a laser like focus on tailoring, automating and optimising CRM as a channel. And for many brands, this has undoubtedly improved the relevance and effectiveness of their communications.

But the old definition is still too simplistic. If we really want our direct marketing efforts to connect with customers, we need to break down silos and think much more broadly.

The Center Parcs test

Think about a brand you have a connection with. How did it form? How would you express it? How would you say it gets stronger or weaker?

Take my mum for example. She’s a lifelong advocate of a Center Parcs holiday. We’ve been going there as a family since shell-suits were acceptable and have photo albums dedicated solely to documenting our highly embarrassing badminton antics. A pretty solid brand-customer relationship, then. So, I asked her how she views it:

“We get a discount every time we book because we’ve been so many times, and I like the little chat we have when we arrive at the arrivals lodge and that they can see we’ve been before – it’s great that they care about the memories we’ve created as a family. They are also really good if something goes wrong. I remember Dad once put the electric kettle on the hob (don’t ask) and within an hour they had replaced the entire hob, no questions asked. I loved the recent advert with the bears, it made me feel all nostalgic about when you were kids.”

Note she did not mention the ‘CRM’ email she gets every fortnight, or the occasional glossy brochure.

CRM is not a channel, it is every brand experience

If as customers we view relationships as experiences, not channels, and don’t silo the interactions we have with brands, why do we do so as marketers? It’s ironic that the activities we’ve historically defined as being responsible for ‘managing relationships’ may not even feature in a customer’s view of their relationship with a brand!

Of course, this differs dependent on the market, brand, product or stage of that relationship, and different experiences will play more of a role at different times.

Center Parcs is likely to have an easier job of delighting customers at every stage of the process because they are associated with pleasurable memories. While low engagement brands, who provide necessities such as bank accounts and home energy, need to work harder to engage customers – which makes getting CRM right even more essential.

But with so many brands using the same tactics, it’s no surprise that people are either overwhelmed by the sheer volume of brand communications, or underwhelmed by the generic nature of a lot of the content. According to our email delivery partner Communicator, email unsubscribes doubled in the lead up to the GDPR deadline on May 25th and this doesn’t account for all of those who simply ignored re-permissioning requests.

If consumers aren’t finding enough value in these traditional forms of CRM, what’s next for us as agencies, clients and brands in our quest to build valuable and sustainable relationships?

Brands need a holistic Customer Relationship Strategy

All of this doesn’t mean the demise of email and DM as a key tool to build relationships. These channels can still help to build trust if they provide real value, but we need to use them in a way that considers the broader context of how a customer experiences your brand.

It is about picking the right way for your brand to achieve its goals, not jumping to traditional CRM thinking as the answer by default. There is little point in investing in a specific channel if there are critical problems elsewhere having a much bigger effect on the way you attract, develop and retain customers.

We should be developing holistic customer relationship strategies that meet (or exceed) expectations - regardless of ‘channel’. It must be driven by need and desire, and by asking what kind of relationship you want with your customers, what do they want from you and how best can that be done at every relevant touchpoint?

Unfortunately, big organisations are often not set up to facilitate this way of thinking. Legacy structures can create silos and put invisible barriers between brand, sales, digital, retail, etc. An external catalyst is often required to break the inertia and implement new approaches.

Agencies need to play a fundamental role supporting and challenging their clients to create better customer experiences:

  • Bringing client teams together, when politics or structure make this a challenge;
  • Relentlessly championing the consumer, when it’s easy to forget who you’re talking to;
  • Taking a holistic view of experience, when the nitty gritty takes over the big picture.

If clients and agencies can work together to make this happen, we can collectively do a much better job of developing a meaningful, long-lasting relationship with customers – and finally do proper justice to the concept of CRM.

Joie Chapple is a senior planner at Signal

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