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Customer voice management speaks to growing need

Customer voice management is the newest CRM-inspired technology to help companies get closer to their customers.

Harry Watkins, Aberdeen Group

There's plenty of technology available to let you track what your customers have done in the past to help you predict...

what they might do in the future. But if you don't hear from a customer in their own words, how do you really know what they're thinking?

To some, the answer is: You don't -- unless you have a technology like customer voice management (CVM) at your disposal.

In a recently published study, "What's Next in CRM: The Learning Relationship," market analysis firm Aberdeen Group delves into the freshly minted arena of CVM, where software vendors and their customers are trying to speed the process of information gathering and engage the perspectives of end users to sniff out new buying habits and upcoming trends.

"The focus of traditional CRM and related predictive modeling is fairly backwards-looking in that you're trying to predict the future based solely on looking at the past," said Harry Watkins, research director with Boston-based Aberdeen's CRM practice. "It's way better than nothing, essentially gauging past failures and successes.

"The problem is that it's a little bit like forecasting on trend analysis, which is great as long as the future emulates the past," he said. "It does a lousy job of predicting kinks in the curve or changes in taste. It promotes continuance of the past rather than suggesting shifts in tastes."

An example of what Watkins is getting at comes from the world of online commerce.

When a customer makes a purchase from a vendor's online storefront, a traditional CRM system might only record that a successful sale was made, regardless of the fact that the buyer may not have enjoyed the overall transaction experience. By creating new ways to let customers tell vendors how truly satisfied they are with their interaction, businesses can then more accurately assess how their products are being received.

Fitting into the big CRM picture

Already a variety of companies are focusing on one or another aspect of trying to more clearly pinpoint customer preferences, customer attitudes, customers' voiced opinions, and feeding that into critical processes within the overall CRM picture.

"People have been doing this for years but they haven't effectively employed the Internet to do it," Watkins said. "That's what's been happening over the last few years. There are now companies providing the tools to do it right and the end game is that businesses that employ CVM get better product development, improved customer relationship management and greater customer retention."

Among the CVM applications makers currently putting products on the market are BetaSphere, CustomerSat.com, ListenPoint, Recipio, SatMetrix and Truis. And while these companies' business models differ significantly from each other, Aberdeen has identified each as a potential leader as the market sector continues to develop.

For its part, San Francisco-based Truis Corp. identifies itself as a "customer intelligence" company and has already found clients in Cisco, Citrix and Microsoft. Its strategy lies centrally around the development of customer-facing feedback tools like Web polls and focus groups where information can be culled and immediately driven back across an entire CRM system.

'No fish to catch'

"Companies have looked at CRM as a sales and marketing strategy, instead of a business strategy," said Jerry McLaughlin, chief executive officer of Truis. "The result is that these companies invested heavily in marketing automation and sales force automation solutions to help them land new customers. But now the economy has slowed and companies have quickly realized new customers are just not out there, thus their MA and SFA nets simply have no fish to catch."

According to McLaughlin, this is where CVM enters the current environment.

"The CVM aspect will fit into the larger CRM picture much the way marketing automation and sales force automation solutions do today," he said. "As more companies focus on their existing customers they will learn that there is a gaping hole between their SFA system and their service and support infrastructure, meaning companies have no way to understand their existing customers, that is, until their customers contact a call center or fill out a questionable satisfaction survey.

"Our opportunity is to help reign in those reactions much further upstream and to immediately leverage them across an organization."

To anyone reading the report, the idea of gathering more detailed customer feedback across a CRM environment seems like common sense, but it is also clear that the larger applications vendors are not yet investing wholeheartedly in the idea. Watkins estimates that companies like Oracle and Siebel will soon be partnering closely with players like Truis to add CVM functionality to their existing CRM infrastructures.

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