Don’t let the job or order number drive your customer relationships

By Charles Groce, CEO of Pearl Street Consulting

Republished from Graphic News magazine, July 2015

Printing is complex business and the information associated with the machinery, stock, accounts, products, scheduling, delivery, and other data centers can seem overwhelming when considering how to organize information flow effectively. There simply is a lot of data in a print setup and this means plenty of room for optimization and improvement. The proper use of production data has very real consequences on the bottom line.

Many print-specific MIS or ERP systems exist on the market to help companies organize all of that data so they can do things like minimize redundant data entry or bring machine data in from the floor automatically using on-device sensors. Some of these can even push production information directly into accounting utilities to be used later for pricing evaluation. This is fantastic. However, these systems often fall short when it comes to managing the single most important component of information architecture in business: customer information.

Most MIS systems include some kind of customer relationship management (CRM) capability. These systems let the user store basic account and customer contact information in a table format, so it’s all centralized and stored in one place. Is this all CRM really is?

Not at all. Although it may read like a cliche: CRM is a way of life in business. It isn’t just a spreadsheet of contact information or even a centralized silo of contact information, it’s a dynamic digital reflection of the end-to-end customer experience, from marketing content consumption to the sales pipe to when a customer leaves. The CRM is tied into every major department in your operation and is the first place to look when the customer or one of their internal represenatives in sales calls with a question or reports a problem.

Why would any business intentionally lock critical, customer-requested production or fulfillment information behind a series of phone calls or an email exchange that can last hours or days? This is effectively what happens when print companies have MIS setups in which the answers to critical production questions are ten layers deep in an MIS and only 2 people on staff know how to find it, or worse, in a paper folder stacked on a customer service reps desk. This is bad for the customer relationship and creates an opportunity for a competitor who can more effectively satisfy your customer’s needs.

If you can anticipate some of the questions your customers will have, like

* Did this shipment arrive on time?
* How many pieces were sent to Sacramento on June 15th and on how many pallets?
* Was this postal form sent two weeks before the files came in as requested?

then the answers to these questions should be at your customer service rep, sales rep, or even customer’s fingertips in a matter of seconds. Better yet, the answers to these questions should be delivered without request over email or text. You know what your customer needs, give it to them. And it’s the role of your company’s information technology to help you do so.

One of the problems with the traditional approach to information architecture is that its the internal job or order number which in a sense drives all other information structure in the business. To answer any detailed question about a customer’s experience with your company, you first need a job or order number. This is backward and inefficient. All information should be driven from the customer record. This is why virtually every department in your operation should use, support, and feed the CRM with information in some way.

The difficult part is making it practical and convenient for staff to do so, so that users aren’t re-keying data or feel like they’re documenting useless information. This is why it’s often a good idea to integrate a CRM into your existing MIS setup. If your customer service reps are already keying production related information that’s eventually needed by the customer into your MIS setup, then this information should be automatically extracted and archived in your CRM under the customer record and be accessible to everyone who needs this information, internal and external.

Another important benefit of CRM technology is that it concretizes the data that defines a customer relationship. Customer relationships only become intellectual property when the company knows the highly specific details of the business relationship. Today, this means effectively documenting every major or minor issue, every problem that comes up, every congratulatory remark from the customer, every special consideration which must be made for this or that customer, how, when, and where the customer relationship was won over to the relationship in additional to order or quote information. Recording this information in the CRM allows a company to better understand their customers in an dynamic sense and to better manage the relationship.

Once a company commits to having a CRM and starts using it in their everyday business operation, patterns begin to emerge in the data associated with the winning of new accounts which allow companies to identify trends in the winning of new business, in the leaving of old business, or in the demand for new features in your product suite.

Customer relationship management will be as important to business in the early 21st century as the mastery of the assembly line was in the early 20th century. As the amount of data associated with individuals and businesses and our relationships with them continues to expand, the ability of businesses to leverage CRM tools to strengthen customer relationships becomes a critical market differentiator in every industry.

Fortunately for many businesses, CRM technology is really nothing new. This means it doesn’t have to be expensive. Although there are differences between the different flavors of CRM, most of them more or less perform the same business functions.

For me, then, the central deciding factor is how well the system plays with others. This is where open source shines. Companies that want to get started using CRM techology should consider a zero-cost open source solution rather than CRM technology with expensive licensing costs. In leveraging an open source solution, investment can be made in implementation rather than installation and deployment.