Customer relationship management (CRM) is, in theory, a broad topic: it’s about building relationships and that encompasses a lot of different activities.

Unfortunately, the activities that are seized upon by most companies are all sales-related.

That’s understandable. Sales issues cause the pains that get CRM in the door. But customer relationships extend beyond the sales process; they begin sometimes before a customer ever surfaces as a prospect, and they continue as long as a customer employs your products or services (and perhaps longer, if that customer shares experiences with your business after he or she is no longer buying from you).

Fixating on sales is not “relationship-building.” It’s also a sure way to limit the ROI of your CRM investment, because while sales can lead to growth, sustaining that growth depends on recurring sales, and building real relationships is the key to this.

So, while sales is important, it shouldn’t force other aspects of relationship-building into the background. Here are three areas that should not be overlooked if you are to create loyal, satisfied and more lucrative customers for the long-term:

Service and Support

It seems like a drop-dead obvious concept: take care of customers after they buy from you, and they’re more likely to buy from you again. But if this was such an obvious concept, why is the world replete with customer service horror stories?

It's because business leaders have managed to mentally divorce service and support from sales. They exist in two different universes: one seen as generating revenue, the other a cost center. A great example of this happens each year in New York, when two shows are held concurrently -- CRM Evolution and SpeechTek -- which deal with CRM and the call center space. The two groups have almost no interaction during the shows except for shared keynotes.

This is a perfect metaphor for what plagues businesses today. CRM stops at the edge of sales and marketing; service is seen as a separate kingdom, and the valuable data contained in CRM becomes difficult or impossible to access. This is why so many support calls go through a “discovery phase” in which the customer tells the agent the story of his or her experience with the business -- information that’s often already available in CRM.

When this happens, regardless of the outcome of the service call, it sends the impression that the business doesn’t really know the customer. And, if you don't know someone, how can you care about that person?

Once the service question is resolved, that data should go into CRM and the customer record, but again it often does not, leaving sales and service in the dark the next time the customer calls.

If you’re really serious about having a relationship with customers that holds up over time, you must take care of them when they need you most. That’s when they’re contacting your service department for help -- and it's when you should rely on your data about them and their needs the most, too.

Content

After you make the sale, what do you do to keep your customers in love with whatever it is you’ve sold them? Most companies sit back and wait for the next sale to come their way. Smart companies start feeding their customers ideas about the products they’ve sold them -- new ways to use them, new ways to maintain them, new ways to train their employees to use them and so on, in the form of white papers, blogs and other material. And it’s not just material thrown up on your corporate web site -- it’s content delivered right to customers in a targeted way.

Content marketing is certainly not a new concept -- but it’s been seen as a marketing task, generally focused not on customer retention but on acquisition. It’s been a matter of giving the customer collateral that helps get them to a buying decision. But all too often after the purchase is made, the flow of information stops.

With any sale involving a product or service with any degree of complexity, post-sale content marketing is useful in pointing out things that can help the buyer gain greater return on his or her investment, but which might have been ignored or forgotten after the initial purchase. For technology, this can be especially helpful -- it’s easy for customers to overlook features that don’t apply to their initial needs, but when their needs change those features may prove useful. But they're only useful if the customer knows about them; content can help identify those features. Otherwise, customers may assume they’re growing out of what you’ve sold them and there goes your recurring revenue.

There’s also the idea of doing well by doing good. Providing customers with content that helps them run their businesses better shows you’re in it with them -- their success is your success, and your investment in content is a demonstration of that commitment.

Conversation

conversation.jpgTalking to customers has been the consistent customer relationship-building tool since the very beginning of modern human economies. These days, social media allows us to be more productive in how we engage in these conversations: not only can we have more of them, but we can find them more easily.

Nothing will replace the one-to-one phone call from a sales rep to learn about an account, and you should have these scheduled regularly, with your CRM system reminding your reps to call. In the meantime, your customers are also out there talking business in other places: Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn most often, but also on vertically-oriented social media sites that cater to their specific areas of interest.

Develop a process for searching for these conversations and engaging in them. If you were at a party and a customer began talking about you or your product, you’d probably join that conversation. Same goes for the social media world, but you have to show up in order to participate.

This is where having your content ducks in a row pays off. Instead of suffocating a conversation with a long explanation of something, address a point in the discussion and then drop a URL to a pertinent piece of content. Your goal should not be to hijack the conversation, but to appear as a knowledgeable, helpful participant and peer. It’s like the Himalayan Sherpas: they can drag people to the summit, but they prefer to do so only what they need to do to enable their customers to have the feeling of accomplishment.

The goal is to be there for the customer when he or she has questions. If you’re there for them now, they’re more likely to be there for you when they’re ready to buy.

Image courtesy of The Last Word (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Chris knows his customer relationship management. To read more of his thoughts, check out CRM: Customer Acquisition is Nice, but Retention is Key to ROI