Marriott exec gives CRM pros something to sleep on

CRM tools are nothing to a company without a strong customer-focused culture to back them up, says an official with hotel giant Marriott International who spoke recently at a gathering of CRM professionals.

Roger Dow, senior VP, Marriott

CARY, N.C. -- The IT staff at Marriott International had puzzled over the problem and concluded that a solution would be both expensive and time-consuming. Sure, it would be great to give guests a choice of which newspaper landed in front of their doors in the morning. But to automate that would require a major development effort.

Then Marriott executive Roger Dow, while on a business trip, found a hotel that was doing just that. The solution? Desk clerks wrote down customer preferences on a pad of paper.

"They did with yellow pads what we decided was unrealistic to do with complicated computer systems," said Dow, now a senior vice president at Marriott.

The anecdote underscored Dow's point that successful customer relations are more about culture and values than disks and chips. Speaking to a gathering of CRM professionals at SAS Institute Inc.'s Executive Conference here recently, Dow outlined some of the lessons he's learned over more than 30 years in the customer service business. Computers are useful tools, he believes, but only if they complement a customer-focused culture.

And customer loyalty is becoming increasingly elusive as customers have more choice.

"People are making buying decisions based on quarter- and half-percentage point differences in price," he said. "You need a bond that's not breakable for a couple of percent. Harley-Davidson owners tattoo the company's logo on their bodies. How do you create that kind of bond?"

High-tech can help. Dow cited his own recent frustration at being unable to buy his daughter a women's basketball at a Washington-area Sports Authority store, while Fogdog.com was able to deliver it in three days. "Why wouldn't Sports Authority allow me to buy online right from their store?" he asked. "My daughter goes to school with 300 girls and they're going to learn about this."

Dow, who has written two books on customer relationships, cited these other anecdotal and statistical nuggets from his experience:

  • Marriott research revealed that "intent to return," an important customer satisfaction metric, was 97% among guests who had had a problem successfully resolved by the hotel. Among those whose problems hadn't been resolved, intent to return dropped to 67%.
  • The company spends more than 60% of its marketing budget on existing customers, a complete reversal of 10 years ago. Repeat business is more lucrative and a better investment, he said.
  • Marriott employees evacuated 1,100 guests without a casualty from a hotel adjacent to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. "There was no manual on what to do but our culture was to get those people to safety," he said.

To that last point, Dow stressed the importance of a customer-focused culture. He cited one insurer that tracks the life changes of its customers and offers discounts and promotions, for example, when a customer gets a driver's license, is married or changes jobs.

To illustrate the reverse, Dow pointed to Howard Johnson International Inc., which let its huge restaurant market share slip away during the 1980s in part because it failed to accommodate individual customer meal preferences.

"The rule used to be to treat everyone the same," he said. "Today, you want to treat everyone as he or she expects to be treated."

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