Companies in almost every industry are trying to use customer information to manage relationships. The proliferation of loyalty programs is one example. More recently the ease of customer communication through the use of e-mail has spawned a torrent of attempts to develop what some marketers consider CRM dialog. Few of these efforts have been developed with an understanding of their CMR potential.
The airline industry provides the best and the worst examples of current initiatives. It introduced the concept of loyalty cards long before anyone talked about CRM or database marketing. When American Airlines launched its AAdvantage Program in 1981 the term frequent flyer was born and loyalty marketing was changed forever.
In the earlier days of the airlines’ loyalty programs, American and United and the others who soon followed tracked little more than flight miles customers could accumulate for free award flights. Over the years as they have captured more and more knowledge about their millions of customers, the airlines have adopted the fundamental rules of CRM:
Obtain individual information about customers
Understand what different customers are worth
Treat different customers differently
They have done this in outstanding fashion with the creation of valuable perks for the best customers. This year I will complete five million miles with American Airlines, and American knows it. Like other Executive Platinum AAdvantage members I get to board early while there is still room in the overhead for my roll-a-board, and I get frequent upgrades. I save time at check-in with the Executive Platinum line, and since 9/11 American has added VIP Executive Platinum lines at the security checkpoints at some airports.
Beyond Executive Platinum status my multimillion-mile history earns special surprise gifts sent personally by Michael Gunn, American’s senior vice president of marketing: ice-cream toppings, interesting books, even crystal glassware from Tiffany, all greatly appreciated. This is neat stuff and certainly indicates American’s desire to manage customer relationships (CRM), but it’s not yet customer management of relationships (CMR).
As beguiling as these perks are, they have not been personalized. All Executive Platinum members get the same early boarding and upgrade privileges, and it is safe to assume that whatever percentage of flyers are selected for the special gifts, they all receive the same books and glassware. Going one step further—with CMR—would mean delivering services that address my personal desires. I enjoy a drink now and then on long flights, but I don’t care for Bombay Sapphire or Tanqueray. How thoughtful would it be for American to stock Beefeaters, my favorite gin, when they know I will be on a flight, just as they already can provide me with a vegetarian special meal? Or for them to include the current issue of Yachting magazine aboard my flights because they know I am a sailing fanatic.
Please believe me, I’m not picking on American Airlines. My flying experience makes me believe American Airlines is the best. I’ve logged over a million miles on several other airlines and they, too, offer perks that show me they are treating different customers differently. But the industry’s customer differentiation is still designed around their product and their services, not around individual customer needs. Customers don’t want to be treated equally. They want to be treated individually.
It’s as if companies believe the technologies that allow them to capture customer data will allow them to change results without having to change what they do. They haven’t, yet, invited customers to be part of the process, understanding that the customer can add value to the product.
They ask if I’ll need a rental car (a purely generic offer). Why can’t they know my limousine preference and book my limo right along with the flight? Why can’t they know my first hotel choice is Hilton and offer to reserve my preferred room near the elevator as part of the airline reservation—maybe even include the wake-up call? In the true sense of CMR, they should be able to allow me to manage my complete travel experience, with their help, with a single phone call or mouse click. Some could argue that this is asking the airlines to function as travel agents. Since all of the airlines have now reduced or, in many cases eliminated, travel agents’ commissions, forcing agents to charge service fees, perhaps the airlines could even add a small charge for this extra customer service. As the Teradata survey indicated, customers would be willing to answer questions and give personal information in order to get these more personalized services.
Here is one of the most creative stories I could find about a customer looking for empowerment. It’s a letter from a long-time customer of a bank.
I am writing to thank you for bouncing the check with which I endeavored to pay my plumber last month. By my calculations some three nanoseconds must have elapsed between his presenting the check, and the arrival in my account of the funds needed to honor it.
I refer, of course, to the automatic monthly deposit of my entire salary, an arrangement which, I admit, has only been in place for eight years. You are to be commended for seizing that brief window of opportunity, and also for debiting my account with $50 by way of penalty for the inconvenience I caused to your bank. My thankfulness springs from the manner in which this incident has caused me to rethink my errant financial ways.
You have set me on the path of fiscal righteousness. No more will our relationship be blighted by these unpleasant incidents, for I am restructuring my affairs this year taking as my model the procedures, attitudes and conduct of your very bank. I can think of no greater compliment, and I know you will be excited and proud to hear it.
To this end, please be advised about the following changes. I have noticed that whereas I personally attend to your telephone calls and letters, when I try to contact you I am confronted by the impersonal, ever-changing, prerecorded, faceless entity which your bank has become.
From now on I, like you, choose only to deal with a flesh and blood person. My mortgage and loan repayments will, therefore and hereafter, no longer be automatic, but will arrive at your bank, by check, addressed personally and confidentially to an employee of your branch, whom you must nominate. You will be aware that it is an offense under the Postal Act for any other person to open such an envelope.
Please find attached an Application for Authorized Contact Status which I require your chosen employee to complete. I am sorry it runs to eight pages, but in order that I know as much about him or her as your bank knows about me, there is no alternative.
Please note that all copies of his or her medical history must be countersigned by a Justice of the Peace, and that the mandatory details of his/her financial situation (income, debts, assets and liabilities) must be accompanied by documented proof.
In due course I will issue your employee with a PIN number which he/she must quote in all dealings with me. I regret that it cannot be shorter than 28 digits but, again, I have modeled it on the number of button presses required to access my account balance on your phone bank service. As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Let me level the playing field even further by introducing you to my new telephone system, which you will notice, is very much like yours. My Authorized Contact at your bank, the only person with whom I will have any dealings, may call me at any time and will be answered by automated voice.
Press buttons as follows:
To make an appointment to see me
To query a missing payment
To transfer the call to my living room in case I am there
To transfer the call to my bedroom in case I am sleeping
To transfer the call to my toilet in case I am attending to nature
To transfer the call to my mobile phone in case I am not at home
To leave a message on my computer, a password to access my computer is required: password will be communicated at a later date to the Authorized Contact
To return to the main menu and listen carefully to options 1 through 7
To make a general complaint or inquiry. The Authorized Contact will then be put on hold, pending the attention of my automated answering service. While this may on occasion involve a lengthy wait, uplifting music will play for the duration. This month I’ve chosen a refrain from “The Best of Woody Guthrie”:
“Oh, the banks are made of marble,
With a guard at every door,
And the vaults are filled with silver,
That the miners sweated for.”
After twenty minutes of that, our mutual Contact will probably know it by heart. On a more serious note, we come to the matter of cost. As your bank has often pointed out, the ongoing drive for greater efficiency comes at a cost, a cost which you have always been quick to pass on to me.
Let me repay your kindness by passing some costs back. First, there is the matter of advertising material you send me. This I will read for a fee of $20 per page. Inquiries from your Authorized Contact will be billed at $5 per minute of my time spent in response. Any debits to my account, as, for example, in the matter of the penalty for the dishonored check, will be passed back to you. My new phone service runs at 75 cents a minute (even Woody Guthrie doesn’t come for free), so you would be well advised to keep your inquiries brief and to the point.
Regrettably, but again following your example, I must also levy an establishment fee of 2% of my balance or $50 (whichever is more) to cover the setting up of this new arrangement.
May I wish you a happy, if ever-so-slightly less prosperous, New Year.
Your humble client.
You may say that’s a bit more empowerment than you are ready for, but this client didn’t wait for his bank to initiate CMR. He took over the management of the relationship on his own.
This is the magic of bringing the customer into the process to help manage the relationship—added value for the customer and added value for the company. The customer’s life is made simpler and the company develops new revenue streams.
I really shouldn’t pick on the airlines when there are firms in many other sectors that are worse offenders. I don’t spend as much at Neiman Marcus as I do with the airlines but I do have a relationship with them. When I open my e-mail in the morning I really don’t care about the “new sunny looks” from the N/M resort collections. I don’t think any of the hot swimwear, straw totes, fresh fashions, or romantic sandals are right for me. I wonder why someone at Neiman’s thinks they are, and wish they would ask me what I am interested in.
There are folks who do just that. And some do it badly. For example, one bookseller I deal with sent the following request:
Hello, Fred Newell
Hmm. We were unable to find any titles to recommend after looking at your purchase history.
Help us create useful recommendations for you by telling us about your interests with the Recommendations Explorer.
I did what they asked, and the next screen said,
Exploring products or interests that you are familiar with and clicking “I own it” or “not interested” will help us generate recommendations personalized for you. To refine your results, click “more like this.”
I did exactly as they asked, checking off my preferences for several categories of business books and some on sailing. I have gotten several offers since that dialog but all have been offers for Tea of the Month, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Mummy Returns DVD, The Best of Martha Stewart Living, and the latest Diana Krall CD—none of which match preferences on my list!
For all their good words about wanting to create useful recommendations for me, this company is not letting me manage the relationship. They still come across as trying to do more for their sales curve than trying to do more for their customer. If they are asking customers for sensitive information and aren’t using that information to the customer’s benefit, they should stop asking those questions.
Anonymous, posted November 17, 2001 on www.datahighways.net (and several other websites).