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Service With a :-)
Companies go digital with customer relations

The customer service operator not only knows who you are; she knows why you are calling too. "Good morning Mr. Ribet, is our appointment to visit you at home tomorrow still okay?" You apologize because you can't get the morning off work. No problem. She is already suggesting other times. "And by the way, since you inquired yesterday, our serviceman will be carrying information on product packages we think would suit you best. If you're still having billing problems, he can help you there as well."

Such an eerily satisfactory exchange in Asia would normally end with the customer waking up from a deep sleep. In daylight, customer/business interactions are too often nightmares of mishandled appointments, misinformation and inefficient processes conducted by a confused and surly telephone clerk. But the days of consumers being treated like numbers — unlucky ones at that — may be ending. Many of the region's largest banks, phone companies, travel agencies and retailers are opting for new technology called Customer Relationship Management (CRM) — an integrated, computerized approach to service, designed to make customers feel like they are dealing with the family tailor instead of a big corporation. "Right now in Asia we are seeing something of a mad scramble to acquire any technology with a CRM label," says Neil McMurchy, a consultant with global market research firm Gartner.

The customer, finding himself king, can thank competition. In cutthroat industries like financial services and in the deregulated telecommunications sector, companies are finding it hard to distance themselves from rivals on price alone. The premium has shifted to service: managing it, monitoring it, customizing it to suit individuals and then measuring the results.

While some think sophisticated new tracking technologies raise privacy concerns, corporations are inclined to install the systems first and ask questions about their propriety later. McMurchy reckons sales of customer-management software in Asia-Pacific will more than double from $200 million in 1999 to $500 million this year. Siebel Systems, a large CRM-software seller, had 30 consultants in the region a year ago; by Christmas it expects to have 400. Andersen Consulting, meanwhile, expects business at the Asian arm of its CRM consultancy to grow by at least 50% this year. "People are buying the technology big time," says McMurchy.

Companies aim to increase the feel-good factor at virtually every point of customer contact — from someone calling a help desk for repairs to a buyer needing information on a product displayed on the Web. While the personal touch may be nothing new to the neighborhood grocer, it's a complicated proposition to an organization with thousands of customers and several different contact channels. Roy Wilson, managing director of HKT, Hong Kong's dominant telecommunications company, says his company's call centers handle 10 million cries for help every month. HKT shops get another 1.5 million walk-ins a month, the company website registers 530,000 hits, and field representatives make 220,000 visits to homes and workplaces. "With these numbers, how does any [customer] become a person?" says Wilson.

The answer may be customer relations management. HKT is in the process of merging customer details scattered over 15 incompatible databases into a single system so that it will be available instantly to any staff member who interacts with the public. "Already our direct sales force carries web-enabled laptops, through which they can pull the right information from the new database," says Wilson. "We are hearing remarks that they are much more competent. But it's not them that's making the difference; it's the tool we have given them."

Aggregating customer data is only a half-step. Companies are also using CRM to monitor whether company representatives are treating people nicely — and to get to know customers in unsettling detail. Using software from BroadVision, a major supplier of e-commerce platforms, retailer and fashion portal monitors users' viewing and purchasing habits, as well as their answers to questionnaires and contributions to online forums. So-called "click-stream" and other data allow to build detailed profiles of its 70,000 members. The profiles are invaluable for tailored, one-to-one marketing via e-mail or websites ("Hello, Steven. We have the new Gucci collection and we think you might be interested.") Sophisticated analysis programs also allow companies to make inferences about customer behavior and spot general purchasing trends ahead of competitors. Comverse Infosys, a supplier of digital recording and monitoring systems, even offers software that can measure the stress levels in an irate customer's voice. "Apart from a better level of service," says Carry Yu, the portal's marketing manager, "CRM allows us to conduct marketing in a much more efficient way."

According to Comverse Infosys, about 15% of all major call centers in Asia have adopted CRM. Growth of the technology is bound to improve relations with the public. But there is also the chance for backlash. In the U.S., the use of sophisticated CRM programs is raising prickly privacy issues and concerns over the sale of information to third parties. Many customers may be relieved that a company remembers their last purchase. Others may find it intrusive that corporations also know their penchant for spicy foods and that their eldest daughter Tiffany is a sucker for designer-label jeans.

The burden is on companies to convince the public that their personal information is secure and not being misused, says Teo Lay-Lim, who leads Andersen Consulting's CRM practice in Asia. "There will always be a trade-off between privacy and convenience," says Teo. Managers need to be forthright about how they intend to use data, for example by posting policies on websites. The discomfort level can also be lowered if customers are allowed to decline to have their profiles sold to other firms. "There is a risk of over-reaction," says Teo. But the average abused consumer may be more than willing to trade a bit of anonymity for better service.

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