Railroad mainstay CSX cleans up data quality issues, launches new CRM

CSX had to get its data quality house in order before it could launch a new CRM system.

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CSX Transportation started moving freight by train nearly 200 years ago. It started practicing CRM only about two years ago.

But during that relatively short period of time, the well-known railroad industry veteran has learned some valuable lessons, according to Vicki Burton, the Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX's director of CRM. Burton shared some of those lessons with attendees at the recent Microsoft Dynamics Convergence conference in New Orleans.

For starters, it's important for CRM users to fully grasp the customer data they have on hand and to make sure they have good processes in place for adding new data to the system. Burton told convergence attendees that it's necessary to address customer data quality issues on an ongoing basis -- but especially before getting started with a CRM initiative.

Burton explained that before CSX could begin with CRM technology, it really had to clean up its act. About six years ago, the company had about 1.2 million customer records, but only about 60,000 of them were considered to be "clean," she said.

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The company undertook a massive data cleansing process, and when it was completed, it decided that customer information needed a new home. That's when the firm started thinking seriously about purchasing a CRM system. Burton said CSX recognized that it could no longer take a siloed approach to customer information -- that customer data housed in disparate systems needed to be unified. The many systems that were used in different departments couldn't communicate with one another and thus couldn't share customer data in an effective and timely fashion.

The company eventually decided to unify customer information inside a new Microsoft Dynamics CRM implementation. CSX began the process of going live with the software about three years ago. Burton soon found that the technology integrated well with SAP Business Objects-based business intelligence technology, Oracle enterprise resource planning system and several homegrown systems. The result was a newly centralized repository of customer data. More than 1,500 CSX employees now use the system on a regular basis.

CSX, which was awarded with one of Microsoft's Dynamic Business awards at the Convergence conference, has been pleased with Dynamics CRM thus far. The only quibble Burton has with the product is that the Dynamics CRM's Mobile Express offering isn't quite as customizable as CSX would like it to be. The company says it is looking forward to the next Dynamics CRM release.

Burton said that the bright side of getting started later than most large firms is that CSX did not have to go through many of the growing pains that earlier adopters have experienced.

"It's to our benefit to start with the newer technologies instead of trying it all over again, as other companies have to," Burton said.

How CRM changed CSX

CRM has led to several many improvements in the way that business is done at CSX, according to Burton. Generally speaking, she said, CSX employees now have a better understanding of customer needs and who is doing what to fulfill those expectations.

CSX salespeople, who are now armed with tablet computers that link directly to the CRM system, are more organized and no longer repeat calls to customers on accident. Marketing professionals at CSX, meanwhile, are using the improved customer data and new CRM system to gain a better handle on the needs of customers serving specific industries. For example, the company examines trends in the lumber and steel markets and relays any helpful information to the sales team.

Company trainmasters -- who manage the various train-related services and routes -- worked with sales and marketing teams to profile more than 5,000 customers -- a list that includes just about anyone who needs to move metals, chemicals, agricultural products, paper and other big shipments by rail. They placed each customer's work site into a geographic information system -- a GIS map -- and reviewed infrastructure, service and other information about the customers, creating a master playbook of sorts that eventually went into the CRM system.

Additional advice for CRM users

Companies who are new to CRM should engage the experts or consultants. There are many things a CRM system can do, but not all capabilities will be needed. Consultants, Burton said, can help organizations determine which CRM efforts are worthwhile and which are a waste of time.

Burton said it's also important to keep ease of use in mind during every step of a CRM implementation. If the software requires too many clicks or is unintuitive, getting employees to use it may be a very tough sell.

New CRM users should also have a long-term plan in mind as to how they will use the system, Burton said, but remember to leave some wiggle room because plans always need changing over time. It's also a good idea to be as specific as possible when submitting request for proposals to CRM vendors, she said. Always remember to request proof-of-concept sessions that clearly demonstrate how the system will handle the organization's specific needs and complexities.

This was first published in April 2013

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