Beyond IT: Maximizing Your CRM to Serve Customers

Today's increasingly fickle and savvy shoppers expect to receive high-touch service at each step of the customer journey, calling for retailers small and large to deliver interactive, authentic and personalized brand experiences. A critical component of creating these multichannel, customer-centric experiences is leveraging the power of customer relationship management (CRM) systems to personalize interactions with customers, reinvent the store experience, foster shopper loyalty and set employees up for success.

Too often, CRM implementations are approached as a simple product onboarding. To get the most out of these systems, however, it's essential that retailers recognize both the full potential of new technologies, as well as the transformative impact they can have on their organizations.

Whether putting into place a new CRM tool or aiming to revitalize an existing CRM, engaging staff at all levels of the organization in the process can speed adoption of the technology, while also cascading new cultural and behavioral norms that can help the company tap the full potential of CRM systems in the fastest possible timeframe. Knowing what to do is one thing — doing it is quite another, and will come down to leaders making a deep commitment to take specific actions.

Define your CRM vision before it's too late
Technology continues to drive transformative change — especially in the rapidly evolving and fiercely competitive retail environment. The full organization, however, is often not engaged in the implementation process. Typically, this is because the vision for change is not defined early enough to effectively engage employees across all levels and functions of the business.

"Day One" comes as soon as you define the opportunity your CRM system will help your organization pursue. Even if the puzzle's final picture isn't completely clear, proactively informing all employees — not just the leadership team and select subject-matter experts — the moment your organization decides to pursue a CRM system implementation or revitalization is critical to a smooth and successful rollout.

Beyond explaining how daily roles and responsibilities will be impacted by the CRM, communication to employees at all levels should shed light on the organization's big-picture vision for the technology implementation. It should answer questions such as, "In what ways will this IT system push our business forward?" and "How will the CRM system help our company forge deeper and more meaningful connections with customers?"

The answers to these questions will trigger a shift in the mindsets of employees across the company—turning all eyes toward the transformation to come.

Articulate the strategy: one centered on your people & customers
It's critical that leaders view CRM implementations as organizational transformations enabled by technology, as opposed to transformations that are about the technology alone. The CRM tool should not define the rollout or revitalization process — rather, the organization's vision for the system should define the tool and how it is implemented.

Facing challenges such as increased channel fragmentation, intense online competition and the rise of new store formats disrupting the status quo, retailers must leverage nimble and flexible CRM systems to stave off competitors and transform the customer experience. Leaders' strategies for making the most of the CRM system must center around how the technology will best align the company's offering with customer needs.

Viewing new CRM tools through this lens and instilling into the organizational culture a commitment to customer-centricity will help leaders engage employees and inspire urgency around creating the enhanced brand experience needed to survive—and thrive—in retail today. 

Build a movement among staff to support & speed rollout
Networks trump hierarchies when it comes to collaboration, speed and results, and CRM implementations or transformations are no exception. Leaders must look beyond "the way things have always been done" to harness the full value of the organization's CRM system. Tapping into the minds of employees across the organization can be invaluable in this process, especially frontline workers who interact on-the-ground with shoppers and can often reveal untapped opportunities to use the new CRM system to improve the customer journey.

If there are issues with the CRM, your customers and frontline employees are already feeling it and are going to be in the best position to apply a customer-centric mindset toward resolving the issue. Once empowered to voice their opinions and take the lead in small projects, employees will often lead the way toward accelerating other changes that support the retail organization's overarching goal for the system.

Small successes will quickly lead to larger wins, and excitement to engage with the CRM system can quickly cascade throughout the business. Further, inspiring urgency and excitement around the IT transformation — particularly among those who will be the customer-facing implementers of the brand experience you're striving to deliver — can help to combat challenges, such as the steep learning curve of new technologies and high turnover rates endemic in retail.

Completely changing the way that employees interact with customers can meet resistance, even when the solution is addressing issues that employees have long been vocal about. Kotter International recently worked with an organization that had previously rolled out a pilot CRM in a single location without great involvement from the impacted employee base. When the pilot rollout was met with enormous barriers and failed to achieve the benefits the organization was seeking, management decided to pause and take a new approach.

The company subsequently engaged both the employees from the pilot location and a cross-section of employees from across the organization in re-assessing the design of the CRM tool and the new processes that would result. The failed pilot participants were transformed into passionate advocates and they, along with the other volunteers, spread out across the organization to smooth the path for the implementation going forward. As a result, the CRM met almost no resistance in the larger implementation. 

From breaking down silos to leveraging frontline employees to spot ways to use CRM to better understand customers and drive innovation, the opportunities are endless for retailers. The key is for leaders to extend their focus beyond the investment in technology and use CRM systems to connect more deeply with customers, enhance the brand experience, better position employees for success and fuel future growth for the organization.

The only question remains: are retailers up to the challenge?

Kathy Gersch is executive vice president at Kotter International, the leadership and strategy acceleration firm founded by renowned Harvard Business School professor Dr. John Kotter. She can be reached at [email protected].
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