CRM: living under a magnifying glass

Customer relationship management is touted as a positive means of serving and empowering the customer. But what other, more...

Customer relationship management is touted as a positive means of serving and empowering the customer. But what other, more insidious uses could it have? Lindsay Nicolle reports on this growing market

It is a common belief that almost anyone who deals with customers secretly believes them to be the most loathsome invention since the word "service" reluctantly entered the British staff manual.

Think about it. Most of us are crabby, impatient shoppers. Our love affair with credit proves we don't like to pay. No wonder many service staff make it plain they couldn't care less if we had a nice day or not.

Why on earth, then, would we be interested in fostering a "customer relationship" with every corporation in town? Because companies would then cater for our precise, individual needs and not treat us like one of the herd. Yes, we all know the industry spiel. But what of the downside?

First, even if we don't want to form a relationship with every company we come across we've got little choice. That's because we are all being systematically "CRMed" - customer relationship managed - thanks to the technology of the same name. Forget the customer being king, the customer is now an insect wriggling on the end of a pin, undergoing dissection by every eagle-eyed corporation keen to refashion their victim into a fat figure on a balance sheet. The lifestyles of ordinary people in the UK are being scrutinised today more intently than every neurotic under analysis in the western hemisphere.

You may eschew shop loyalty cards, pay in cash, and religiously tick the little box that ring-fences your personal data on every transaction you make. But it is virtually impossible to prevent your personal information from leaking out in some shape or form to those who have an unhealthy interest in your business.

From your school days to your polling card, your postcode to your passport, there are records, and records - and records of records - around that you never knew existed. There's a strong likelihood that one day these will be traded unethically (if they haven't been already).

The Data Protection Act is only as good as the companies that stick by it and the people they employ to follow its code of conduct. For every company you trust not to sell your personal data to any Tom, Dick or dotcom, there's one that will do so unwittingly, if not knowingly, leaving their image squeaky clean.

The upshot of this often permissionless intrusion is that while companies may be strangers to us on first meeting, it appears we are increasingly familiar to them.

For customers, that's like having someone viewing your police file five minutes before you meet them. It may just contain a few minor misdemeanours, for example, those library books you forgot to return, the odd bounced cheque because you spent the money on a last- minute weekend break, or a history of opening and closing your book club membership just to get the free introductory offer.

However, it may also contain evidence of more heinous crimes, such as a tendency to diligently return substandard goods before the guarantee runs out, a hatred of cash machines, or a tendency to run your bank account so efficiently that you withdraw big sums as soon as they arrive and stay just right of the line on bank charges.

Businesses are quick to deny that these actions will ever be held against consumers, but if that's the case, where is the value in knowing them?

The response from industry to this question is so polished that it would be possible to quote people in dozens of different positions saying the same thing. The argument runs that the knowledge of people's less profitable habits is just a by-product of the main operation, which is to collect personal data that will enable a company to better understand its customers wants and needs so that it can offer a better and more personalised service.

Moreover, no one will get hurt in the process. Services will just be tailored to persuade consumers exhibiting "negative" behaviour (that which costs the company money) to interact with the organisation via less expensive means. Consumers will be painlessly retrained. There is nothing underhand going on, no alternative agenda. You're just being paranoid.

Tell that to the village inhabitants who recently saw their local bank close because they weren't considered to be wealthy enough customers to be worth keeping sweet. The move was proof that the bank is a business not a nanny service. The only relationship it's interested in is one where it gets what it wants whatever the cost.

No company makes a move like that, or adopts a new technology, unless it holds out the prospect of saving money. CRM technology will not only save companies money but will generate it too. It can identify your most profitable customers and highlight those you wish would go elsewhere.

It's a short hop from this scenario to identifying measures that penalise or deselect profit-neutral customers. For all the protestations of CRM fans, the negative application of the technology from a customer's perspective is bound to happen. If a company is profit hungry it will use CRM to cut losses.

Banks can be expected to make the first move. Technophobes who avoid ATMs and withdraw small sums every day over the counter may find themselves charged extra for their preference. Unprofitable customers may be just smoked out. Banks just have to raise the bar on loans, overdraft charges, or the minimum amount to be kept in a current account and people will look elsewhere for an alternative service.

The rot has already set in according to Terry Nelson, principal consultant and CRM strategist for Tanning Technology Europe, a recently formed e-business consultancy that develops CRM solutions and architectures for the financial sector.

"At present, high street banks are applying traditional CRM measurement very strictly and possibly erroneously," he warns. "They're attempting to form more in-depth relationships with more profitable customers, overlooking the potential and the needs of others, for example those who are borderline for mortgage loans."

He adds, "Banks have a poor track record of treating customers as customers, or even listening to customers. It takes two to develop a meaningful relationship and current bank CRM activities are not doing this."

What can customers do? Refuse to provide any personal data? Deliberately falsify personal information? Argue over every bit of junk mail? Frankly, life's too short.

An easier, more conciliatory approach would be to develop a better r‚sum‚ as a customer while policing misinformation as best you can - this way at least service staff won't have a reason to wish you dead.

A paranoid's guide to CRM

  • I will be identified as a non-profitable customer and blacklisted

  • Treating people as individuals means making equals of none of us. A three-tier hierarchy of customer will prevail, with a corresponding standard of service, as with the airlines: first-class customers (VIPs), business passengers (trade), and economy (peasants)

  • My personal details will be traded for profit with companies I know nothing about and that may not be as ethical in their dealings as they seem

  • Knowledge of my lifestyle will reveal my political, religious and moral beliefs which will be manipulated by skilled marketeers

  • Unscrupulous firms will use my friends and family to learn more about me, offering incentives for my information. (Witness the cash-back referral services mushrooming on the Net)

  • Firms will learn of less sociable human habits and prey on the vulnerable. For example, offer easier access to cheap cigarettes or ways to gamble

  • Goods and services won't change at all, just arrive in personalised packaging, but I shall be lulled into believing that over time they have changed and pay more for the privilege.

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