For many organizations, customer relationship management (CRM) software is an expensive, unwieldy, yet necessary, evil. How necessary? Gartner estimates the current market size for CRM software vendors globally in 2010 at $9.38 billion. However using CRM software is only the first step in actively engaging with customers and developing mutually beneficial long-term relationships. Businesses should be looking beyond CRM to a dialogue with customers which takes into account all of the data and insights obtained from previous interactions with them.

Turning a Customer into an Individual

Today’s businesses are operating in an environment in which customers are more sophisticated, demanding and vocal than ever before. It is clear that there is a social change taking place in the way customers listen to and engage with brands and companies.

To keep on top of it all (attracting and retaining customers) businesses need the systems in place that allow them to efficiently and effectively engage with their customers no matter what channel - from print to online and increasingly via mobile and social media platforms. They must tailor their communications to individual need, respond rapidly and accurately track and reference what has been said and when.

As such, businesses need to ensure that their communications strategies align with the information they have about their customers, and that their communications have a multi-channel capability. But information doesn’t build relationships; understanding what to do with that information is the key. Knowing when and how to use that information enables a business to really engage with its customers and take each individual customer on a journey that builds loyalty and goodwill.

84% of Customers Want to Choose How They Receive Information

The changes in consumer behavior have been led largely by the rapid advent of a ‘connected’ society, and have exposed the limits of the print-centric communications platforms that have remained largely unchanged for decades. Consumers want to engage on a range of platforms, and companies need to be able to understand their preferences and respond to them in the format that is appropriate for that individual.

Recent research commissioned by the Royal Mail has revealed that a staggering 84% of consumers would like to be given a choice as to how they receive communications, such as bills and statements, from their service providers. Although many businesses have recognized there is demand from consumers for a multi-channel dialogue, few have the systems in place that allow engagement that takes into account, and learns, customer preferences. In fact, the response from most organizations, if there’s been any response at all, has been to ‘bolt on’ additional solutions. The print platform remains, but separate (often proprietary), platforms are used for digital document delivery for mobile applications, for SMS, for online interaction and a range of others. But while an improvement, the lack of built in and seamless integration inevitably leads to added complexity and the potential for failure.

Customers want the same brand experience on their phone, their laptop or tablet as they get from more traditional communications. But they want the way the message is presented to be appropriate to the medium.

So they want information sent to a smartphone to be scaled for a small screen, rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach to information delivery.

And they want communications to match the way they use technology -- an SMS alerting them to a web-based download, rather than a letter or an email.

This means a multi-channel experience is about more than communicating via a number of the different channels available. It’s about the careful integration of these channels based on what companies already know of their customers -- a true ‘multi-thread’ engagement.

Realizing the Potential

The opportunity for companies that succeed in providing a two-way conversation across the range of communications channels, giving customers an experience that is personal and relevant to them, is huge. Communication is, after all, the frontline of many companies’ brands; therefore it is vital they make every communication with each individual customer count.

The Holy Grail for marketers is one communications platform that works in conjunction with CRM and marketing automation, and enables them to create, integrate and manage a single customer dialogue across diverse channels and devices. By making smart use of the information and valuable insights gathered by previous communications, companies are able to communicate with customers based on their individual preferences.

This level of engagement will mean greater personalization of the communications, in turn driving customer loyalty and, later, brand advocacy.