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COMPUTER FORUM
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COMPUTER FORUM: Digital Gift Baskets
Do you remember when managing your customer relationships meant calling them on a regular basis, keeping their orders current, their deadlines met and sending them a "thank you" once or twice a year? Then came Outlook, Act!® and similar databases to help keep track of general correspondence. These became the standard for management of customer relationships. That was before the customer relationship management (CRM) software boom. Now, there are so many options for managing customer relationships, it's hard to decide what kind of a fruit cake to send them to say thank you.

Originally, CRM was envisioned as having its greatest impact in the business-to customer arena, but it has grown so quickly that the lines are blurred between the man-on-the-street, the company down the block and the corporation around the world.

The optimal method for utilizing CRM is through electronic data interchange (EDI) because all the information given by your customer is already in digital format and ready for storage and later retrieval. Although EDI does not involve a conventional phone call, that does not mean CRM can't. By the way, EDI is a now obsolete term that was used in the computer industry a while back meaning Internet or proprietary network order handling. It involved giving your customer a look at your current (or nearly current) inventory information or production availability to see how soon they could expect to fit into your schedule before placing an order with you. That has the unfortunate consequence of sending some customers, who are in a hurry, to another vendor without your even knowing they were leaving. CRM attempts to circumvent that problem by inserting your shop management into the customers production or sales strategy early on in the order making process. Your customer then integrates their plans into your shop's production strategy so that when production begins, both of you have your ducks in a row. In a way, it connects you and your customer more closely so that you are both working together toward a common goal. Sounds great so far, right?

When your customer does give the final go ahead on a project, the new CRM demonstrates its greatest benefit. If you know the order is on its way and you have planned your work schedule ahead of it, your production line is prepared, the materials are on hand and the schedule runs smoothly. This allows management to take a long-view basis of scheduling and allows them to be proactive in dealing with orders weeks and months ahead of time. It beats the alternative of reacting at the last minute, worrying about the next hour, and maybe when you have a spare moment, thinking about tomorrows schedule. Don't misread, unexpected situations will arise but they should be far fewer than before. And, since maintenance can now be done on an as needed rather than on a "squeeze-it-in-because-its-broke" basis, that variable will become much easier to manage.

If it sounds like you might need to share in a lot of information about your shops capacities and scheduling and that might be putting you in jeopardy, that is not quite the idea behind CRM. The amount of information shared can be as much as you feel comfortable with, but the more sharing that goes on, the smoother things will run. Wouldn't it be nice if some of our shop management information was at least available for our sales and service reps to share when an order is being worked out up front. And, wouldn't it be nice if we could get a better view into the customer's thinking at the same time those annoying little schedule crunches are minimized. At the very least, CRM gives a better view of the customers purchasing history, and with access to some of their plans, maybe some ability to forecast their strategies. Who knows, if you get good enough of it, you might know what the customer is going to say even before they pick up the phone to call you. At best, CRM joins you and your customer's management strategies into a single stratagem.

Drawbacks
Now that I've got you all hyped about CRM, I have to remind you that there is the one downside that I touched on above. The privacy issue can be a double edged sword. CRM potentially opens a wider view of your shop to your customers than they have probably had in the past, and at the same time it opens the same view of your customers processes. How can that be a downside? Because it removes another layer of our own privacy as well as that of our customer. It requires a great deal of honesty about your methods of doing business. That opening is like any double edged sword; it can be used to drive beneficial events or misused to create a possible catastrophe. I know that sounds rather ominous, maybe bringing up visions of your customers selling you out to a competitor. Tread carefully at first is likely good advice. That is where a new value judgement is required by CRM. How much do we trust a customer and how much do we want them to trust us.

The only thing missing now is the link to the telephone caller ID system that will show us the customer's information before we even pick up the phone ... and maybe one that sends our customers a gift basket of exotic coffees... Hmmmm ... Not a bad idea. Maybe a little Java, and some ...

For past Computer Forum articles see our website at www.plasticsmag.com and click on Computer Forum under "Columns". As always, we want to hear from you. Send your questions care of the magazine or e-mail me at jgarden@plasticsmag.com.

For more information, click on the Author Biography link at the top of this page.

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