Revenge of the Bean Counters

These are strange times indeed.

Much to my surprise, I now find myself on another team entirely in the classic creative (marketing) versus bean counter (accounting) versus nerd (technology) versus suit (executive) political landscape.

I should start with a confession: I myself am a mixed breed. I am a former suit (financial executive) and currently a nerd (IT/management consultant).

Over the past several years, I would often find myself on the side of the bean counters (usually a close ally of the suits) when making decisions regarding the design and undertaking of marketing and sales automation systems.

I would often raise more than a few eyebrows when I pointed out the lack of financial discipline and solid performance metrics for customer relationship management (CRM) initiatives. When corporate marketing managers proudly displayed their fancy reports on the many different types of visitors to and visitor behaviors on the company Web site, I would usually take a deep breadth in quiet exasperation and say: “Well, that’s interesting… Now how are you using this information to improve revenue, margins, or both to at least recoup the costs of all this click-stream analysis?” Dead silence would invariably follow.

When corporate executives became all excited about buying the leading CRM package, I would gamely point out that achieving an integrated view of customers within the organization was useful — but did not in itself generate any kind of sustainable competitive advantage, perceived benefit to the customer, nor economic benefit to the organization.

In most cases, the CRM “visionaries” (usually, but not always, comprising creatives and nerds) would view suits and bean counters as the enemy — clueless, narrowed-minded, and shortsighted twerps who just “didn’t get it” (whatever “it” happened to be). These visionaries believed that financial discipline does to CRM initiatives what high school orchestras usually do to classic symphonies: They butcher, weaken, and render them useless, harmless, or worse.

What a Difference a Year-Plus Makes

Now I find myself on the other side of the argument. I am no longer agreeing with the bean counters. Instead, I find myself increasingly fighting against them.

After years of “visionaries” spending recklessly, the bean counters have come home to roost. The accountants are now shocked — shocked — to find that many CRM initiatives, many of which were launched as experiments, as defensive strategies, because they seemed to be the “hip thing” to do, or all three, do not have specific financial performance metrics or goals.

With the bean counters now in charge, the investment timeframe for positive financial return has dramatically shortened. A few years ago, CRM was seen as a strategic investment and thus was expected to have a strategic (i.e., long-term) benefit. Nowadays, CRM needs to pay for itself in one year — or it’s worthless.

Tragic Flaw

The bean counters, I suspect, are basing their arguments on a flawed premise. They mistakenly believe that, by avoiding risk, organizations can outperform their less-wise competitors. That by playing it safe, they can avoid making investments and changes to their organizations’ technical, human, and financial resources.

But in today’s global electronic marketplace, playing it safe and avoiding change is probably the riskiest strategy of all.

And that’s the real cost.

Do you agree? Don’t agree? Got an interesting insight, opinion, or real-world example to share? What are your thoughts? Please write me at Arthur.oconnor@reuters.com.

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