The Achilles Heel of Customer Information

Almost every firm can compete better if they just mastered speed and accuracy of customer data.  It is that simple. You can have an advantage over a competitor if you have data, and the ability to interpret it faster than someone else. You can also "win" by having a more accurate interpretation of the current reality or a prediction of a future reality (of course, a posteriori rationalization of "success" is a confounding factor, but for the current discourse, we will leave that conundrum in abeyance). The lumbering giants of industry have an Achilles heel in that their organization structures capture and confine the information advantage that they have. The process of unlocking it is a combination of technical prowess, organizational agility and managerial perseverance. The goal can be clear, but the crafting of the outcome takes effort.

Why does it take effort? In the interaction of organization and information there are many eddies and currents. People are informational beings, and when we begin to "craft", "control" or, God forbid, "automate" something as precious as information it raises many things: conscious and unconscious. Some people, even very "rational" ones, hoard information, for it gives them an advantage. As "value" is more and more determined by knowledge and information, the relative importance and value of hoarding increases. Simultaneously, we have the influx of technology that, devoid of human motivation and politics, should make the sharing of information and knowledge transparent. To borrow the language of Michael Jensen, the brilliant economist/agency theorist, technology can help make "specific" knowledge, more "general". In the beautiful tautology of definition, Jensen states that which is "more easily shared" is "general knowledge", and that which defies easy distribution is "specific". Technology holds open the promise of making the specific, general. Codification and easy distribution roll naturally out of the implementation of technology as easily as footing of accounts flows from accounting. It is an implied "natural" concomitant implication of such an "automation" of intellect.

Yet, some of the simplest regions of interpretation have been resistant to even basic codification and automation. Let us visit the realm of Customer Relationship Management. To "focus on customer value" is a point as obvious as "buy low-sell high". Yet, the implementation of interfaces to the customer and management systems that drive value, are elusive, and despite decades of affirmation of the need for this emphasis, the experience of the typical "customer" is weak at best.

Modern customer interaction has been beset by "interfaces". From call centers (born of Gerald Ford's creative idea (how bizarre is it that the mainstream of customer service has been brought to us by Gerald Ford!) to make government more responsive through the creation of the first 800 numbers that fostered the idea of "free" calling. This has been augmented, some 20 years later, by the advent of the internet and its immediate connectivity. "Palm" computing, cell phones, and pagers only add to the thicket of devices carried by even the most technology averse customer.

Each of these new channels of contact have been motivated by a rationale to "get closer" to the customer and provide convenience. Yet, the experience, most of the time, is one of frustration and learning on the part of the customer. The early adopters have been the users, and they are the mountain climbers of customer experience, in that they will change their behavior and "scale" the new environment for the thrill of knowing that it is "there" and can be "conquered". The mass customer awaits a convenient, continuous interface requiring only intuitive learning (and a low price) before adoption.

Think of the times you have called a customer service center for a credit card, and been asked, by the automated voice, to enter your 16 digit account number and after fingering this entry into your cell phone, while driving, and almost killing yourself, you are then asked, by the first human customer service representative, to repeat your 16 digit account code. This is a poorly managed, but typical, interface. In an even more baroque, but frequently encountered embellishment on the redundant data query mentioned above, we experience customer service representatives who can understand and empathize with our predicament, even relate to the absurdity of the situation, but are still powerless to do anything about it. Why? Because they do not have the information to understand how profitable or non-profitable a customer is, and, simultaneously, they don't have the authority to perform some act of service recovery to make the relationship whole.

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