Let’s Talk… About Our Relationship

Like many people, I take work home. I never measure just how much I get done outside the office — but my DSL provider apparently does this for me. Recently, I stumbled on a “My Account Usage Report” link on the company’s site.

Ready? According to the report, I spent 566 hours, 31 minutes, and 4 seconds online on a single day: March 25. Earlier that week, I logged 118 hours, 23 minutes, and 11 seconds on another day. So productive was I that (although a month has just 720 hours) yours truly spent 1,253 hours, 2 minutes, and 13 seconds online in March (not including logging hundreds of hours of dialup access — which I don’t use and which incurs a surcharge from “the largest providers of wireline and wireless communications in the United States”).

These workaholic tendencies span as far back as my “usage reports” do, to December 2000.

Figuring a preemptive strike was in order, before I received either an insane bill or a visit from the Federal Communications Commission, I clicked on “contact us.” Instantly, I landed on a page screaming, “Can I Get DSL? Order online today and your first month is free!”

Customer service sent a befuddled response: “I can see what you’re concerned about. Must be a computer error. Please let us know if there are any billing discrepancies,” (this, in turn, triggered billing discrepancies — not in my favor).

When not pushing the boundaries of Internet Time, I’m busy Banking in the Future. For two months now, my account home page has reported my “last activity” occurred June 7, 2007. When I tried to make a transfer between two accounts, the online record shows the funds left Account A. It’s been eight weeks and counting, and there’s still no online record of the money landing in Account B.

I clicked “customer service.” Up pops a list of phone numbers. Groaning, I dialed… and got the poor bozo whose home number is posted on the bank’s Web site. I got the right number (during a lunchtime visit to a branch office). A recording urged me to access my info online. It went so far as to say bank customer service reps have no information beyond what’s accessible on the Web (untrue).

This “leading global financial services firm with… relationships with over 99 percent of the Fortune 1000 companies” (and $713 billion in assets) can’t do math?

What happened to the promise of CRM? Instantaneous, accurate information? Enhanced relationships built on trust, confidence, and transparency that result in repeat business and a healthier bottom line? The vision of lower personnel costs as processes are automated and data are integrated across business units and channels?

My bank and my telco are conglomerates of the size and scale that make CRM infrastructure providers salivate at the prospect of winning multimillion dollar contracts for “solutions.” Shouldn’t the solutions work?

I asked some experts, in this case, ClickZ’s resident CRM consultants. Jack Aaronson thinks the problem lies in bad coding and technology, not bad process or CRM. “Once CRM has been implemented, how is it maintained? How do changes in technology necessitate changes in business process?” he asks.

Arthur O’Connor thinks the issues are a result of massive budget cuts companies have recently experienced for Internet-related projects. Both agree fundamental Web site issues increasingly take a back seat to other (offline) problems.

I agree. But something else is going on here, and it’s not about relationships. What many companies call CRM is a wolf in sheep’s clothing: an opportunistic stab at selling and up-selling. Customer relationships? Window dressing. The bottom line is the bottom line. That’s how CTOs and marketing EVPs justify budgets for enterprise-wide applications.

There aren’t problem-solving mechanisms in place for these “solutions.” Solving problems costs money, just as building relationships takes time. There’s a payoff in real CRM, but not by the end of Q3.

Meanwhile, silos continue to sprout all over the corporate landscape. My mortgage was at one bank, which was taken over by another (where my checking account lives). That new entity was in turn gobbled up by yet another financial monolith. Consequently, parts of my financial empire reside in Ohio; others, here in New York. All these elements pop up on a single Web page but certainly don’t intersect anywhere else. Is an effort being made to cobble together all this disparate technology and culture? It doesn’t seem so.

My DSL lives under the same banner as my landline and mobile services. The corporate “relationship” stops there. Account numbers, fees, customer service, billing — those are relationships I’m managing.

Huge corporations are walking on thin ice. Their so-called “CRM” actually highlights the gaping cracks, fissures, and holes in their infrastructures and in their ability to conduct business.

With enough tenacity, you can still foster relationships. I’ve spent hours on the phone with Lori F. at my bank, a customer care executive who’s done a bang-up job bringing my funds back from the year 2007. I feel kind of close to her. She was assigned to me by her boss, a VP of Productivity & Quality Management (who threw in a BN.com gift certificate to take the edge off my animosity). I no longer call customer service at the Big Telco — I have a personal rep assigned to me there, too.

Come to think of it, e-CRM has resulted in some of the best relationships I’ve ever had with people at companies I do business with. It’s funny this comes as a result of interactive “solutions.”

I keep wondering, though. How much is Lori paid…?

Related reading