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Authored by Paul Gorman, Account Executive, ImageSoft

I recall reading a story told by Tom Peters, the famous business consultant, about two companies with very different cultures. 

In one of them, the company focused everything it did around customer experience. If they added a service or product, the entire product was looked at through the eyes of the customer. The customer was also the focus of the reporting on sales, satisfaction, production, promotion – nearly every aspect of this company’s operation was built around understanding and improving the customer’s experience. 

The other company was more traditionally focused. It was not that they did not care about the customer but, rather, that it was not their primary focus.  In fact, their focus changed depending upon what they were doing.  Each part of the business created visions and mission statements designed to describe the focus of each business unit and the unifying vision was tacked on the end.  If the unifying vision was ‘to build a world class organization providing widgets,’ then the mission statement of the accounting department might be something like ‘We carefully and accurately capture all business transactions to produce all required financial reporting…to build a world class organization providing widgets.’  This would only differ from any other part of the organization by the preamble describing what that business department did.

Customer-Focused Systems Shouldn’t Feel Like Speed Bumps

The part of this story that most interested me was the description of the systems.  The customer focused company had carried the mission of delighting customers and focusing on the customer’s experience into the information systems they ran the company on.  The primary key was always the customer’s information and the measurement of all business activity was around the customer.  Interactions with customers had many data points.  They were timed, they were measured against each other, categorized into event types.  If you wanted to understand what had happened in a service area, you could look at a specific customers experience over any period of time, read through each ‘customer event’ and understand that customer’s relationship with the company.  The company management could look at each event type and measure the event types against each other.  Understanding what made each event type the best and implementing policies that helped encourage the best event types.

With my career centered in both government and technology, I have worked in constituent and customer focused industries.  I could readily see that the information systems I was being asked to use were designed exactly like the mission statements of companies without a truly unifying focus.  They were siloed, had no unifying thought behind them and were designed only for the specific function they provided.  Sure, we could do reporting and look things up by the customer, but there was never a way to look at a transaction or interaction from the customer’s point of view.  A customer does not switch out persons when they stop talking to sales and start talking to accounting – they do not stop the interaction when a sales team passes the interaction to the operations team.  A customer literally feels each transition like a speed bump.

In my Government roles it was even worse! A service event leads to a billing event, which leads to an accounting event with no unifying connection.  A constituent seeking services has a very choppy ride, especially if the service crosses ‘divisions’ or ‘departments.’  It’s critical to remember that, from the constituent’s perspective, they have not called another ‘division’ – they are always calling upon the same entity. Why, then, the disconnect?

“When All You Have is a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail!”

When we look at our services and mission through the eyes of the customer, most organizations find their information systems are lacking in the customer experience department.  They are often siloed, separate systems specifically designed to provide just the functionality needed for just the division or department that is using them.  But the issue is more than just the data silo – they are built with the specific focus of the division’s functions.  Even in larger ERP systems that attempt to cross all back-office functions in a single unifying monstrosity, each function has, at most, data connections but they are built to provide just the specific division the information they need to track and use.

Simply put, they are information silos within a larger system.

There is a very unfortunate couple of initiatives that inevitably arise from the realization that the system lacks customer focus.  The two options I see most often are:

            (1) The introduction of a stand-alone CRM system

            (2) The ‘REPORT’ often built upon the ‘SPREADSHEET FROM HELL.’ 

I have seen both and watched perfectly good careers go up in flames and come to ignoble ends.  I’ll deal with the CRM initiative first.

The CRM initiative is chosen because the diagnosis was only partly done.  The recognition of the customer or constituent’s bumpy ride on any interaction with the entity is misdiagnosed as not also being the cause of the siloed information systems.  I’m being charitable here – it may be that perfectly intelligent people are so blind to the flaws in their information systems that they do not see what would be obvious with a little bit of simple system diagrams. A customer problem requires a Customer system may be the extent of the analysis.  I hope not, but how else to explain that a system silo problem is going to be fixed by implementing another system silo?  When this initiative predictably fails, it is often the CIO who takes the fall.  This is where I make authoritative sounding pronouncements that you are going to believe because I make them sound so authoritative: More CIOs have lost their jobs over failed CRM initiatives than for any other purpose.

The other initiative, the ‘SPREADSHEET FROM HELL,’ which I would like to abbreviate into SFH, happens when the person chosen to solve the problem is somewhere in the Financial Reporting function.  This happens because of the often-recognized phrase: “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail!”  I have met accounting and financial people (heck, I’m married to one) who if pressed to create a Greeting Card would use a spreadsheet – we all know that someone is going to try and solve this information problem with a spreadsheet. 

Comprehensive Case Management: So You Don’t End Up Like Bob and the Wolverines

With that, we can confidently predict the following:  (1) It will eventually become a ‘shared’ spreadsheet so that each division could pick the person they liked the least to be responsible for double entry of customer interactions into the SFH; (2) It will have macros (God, will it have macros!), and formulas crafted in exquisite detail that move data through pivot tables; (3) only Bob in accounting knows how it works – he wrote it, but is absolutely not responsible for entering data into the SFH. That, of course, is everyone else’s job.  Often this initiative fails because Bob’s badly beaten body is found in a dumpster several weeks later with vicious bite marks that be from a dog or a wolverine.

In all seriousness though, it fails because no one except Bob knows what the SFH does and they screw it up every time they try to use it.  Bob’s fine…really – the police uncovered the plot in time and caught the wolverines.

I am going to, at this point, humbly suggest that there is a way to make customer or constituent focused systems without replacing the entire system infrastructure of the agency.  The key is two-fold: first, use a ‘Case Management’ tool, like OnBase, that provides the maximum amount of flexibility. Second is that the system is designed with pre-built integration tools.  There are many Case Management tools and even CRM point solutions on the market – they both lack flexibility and, while they do have wonderful, pre-built functionality, they have no internal integration engines. They are often designed to be silos or point solutions. 

If you go with a pre-built CRM that requires double data-entry, my advice is to watch out for wolverines.