By Matt Garman, Director, dhc Ltd

For an Olympic triple jumper, how they perform in only three steps will sort out the winners from the also rans. The same can be said of the business world in which we find ourselves today. As UK plc continues to crawl out of recession the organisations that made the early hop to control costs and are now following it up with a skip to grow revenues and a final jump to increase market share, will ultimately be the medalists of the future. However, how can you get your business fit for competition?

The answer can of course be found in any business-oriented textbook — make the business lean and agile with streamlined end-to-end processes — but there is a huge difference between knowing what to do and how to do it. However, it is possible that there is a pot of gold is buried in their own sandpit!

Ask any ‘c level’ person why they spend so much money on market research and you will get the answer along the lines of, “To learn more about the market, so that we can develop and deliver better products and services to our customers more profitably”. Then ask them why they spend such large sums on customer service and contact centres and the down-in-the-mouth response is, “Because we have to”.

The truth is whilst contact centres in particular have suffered from a bad public image for quite some time, their reputation internally has been far from glittering, often considered a necessary evil and an operational cost drain on the business that doesn’t deliver much perceived value back in to the organisation. Ironically, it is the contact centre (specifically the systems that it uses) that may be the key to the organisations buried treasure.

In the past, decision makers and influencers within the business - which had no direct line to the customer service department - were oblivious to the true potential of the investments that were being made in the powerful technologies, which are sat siloed in the contact centre. Finally, a decade since CRM (Customer Relationship Management) became ‘the’ buzzword in customer service circles the message is beginning to reach a wider audience.

For the uninitiated few, CRM is essentially a strategy accompanied by a raft of technologies to help organisations improve the quality and profitability of their customer relationships. It enables all activities (telephone calls, email correspondence etc) to be catalogued against a client record so that agents and team leaders in the contact centre can have a 360-degree view of the customer.

There are of course cynics who argue semantics that customers do not want a relationship with an organisation and certainly don’t want to be managed, but this misses the point entirely. A true CRM strategy is about the customer impacting how an organisation manages its business and in turn improves the products and services it is able to take to market. So, with organisations having to work harder than ever to be competitive and to gain and retain customers, it is perhaps not surprising that they are looking everywhere to find a commercial advantage. Hence CRM has once again come to the fore, but this time the buzzword has been reclaimed by the boardroom.

CRM and its associated tools can help the entire organisation to focus on becoming customer centric, moreover it can deliver insights to every area of the business. For example, product development teams can learn about how their products and services are meeting customer demand and use this knowledge to keep the offering fresh. Marketing can gain rapid feedback from customers on their outbound campaigns and the impact of their competitor’s activities. Sales teams can identify opportunities to cross-sell and up-sell to existing customers, uncover new revenue streams and improve lead conversion. Of course customer service can also continue to improve the quality-of-service, drive down churn rates and reduce the overall cost burden of service to the organisation.

Traditionally, it has been contact centres and customer service departments that have been responsible for recommending and purchasing CRM systems, but times are changing and with so many people with a vested interest in CRM, the challenge is how to decide on the right system for the business as a whole.

Clearly, one of the major contributors and beneficiaries of this rebirth of CRM has been Microsoft, which entered the market in early 2003 with Microsoft CRM 1.0. Since this time the company has gone on establish itself as one of the dominant forces in the market with a customer list that includes Barclays Bank, Department of Work and Pensions and The City of London. In fact, recent reports by the analyst company Forrester recognised Microsoft as a Leader in The Forrester Wave™: CRM Suites for Midsized, Q2 2010 (June 2010) and The Forrester Wave™: CRM Suites for Large Organizations, Q2 2010 (June 2010) reports.

So, with such a diverse range of solutions from an even wider range of vendors, many of which have been working in the CRM space for much longer than seven years, why is Microsoft gaining so much ground? The answer is three-fold. First and foremost is the brand itself - no-one ever got fired for specifying a Microsoft product! Secondly, Microsoft Dynamics CRM delivers a familiar interface and enables almost all organisations (apart from the very smallest SMEs); to leverage prior investments in Microsoft technology and there are not many sites that don’t have Windows Servers or Windows. Finally and most significantly, is Microsoft’s vision of the evolution of CRM towards an xRM (extended relationship management) strategy that delivers the customisation and seamless integration with other systems within the organisation, that was only previously available to those with deep pockets, considerable resources and time — a luxuries that no business can afford to have in there continually uncertain times.

xRM has the potential to be one of the most significant developments of recent years. It has the ability to streamline, improve and synchronise every aspect of the business from the very first contact with the customer, through to the purchase of a product (whilst understanding what drivers influenced the customer in making this decision), how the transaction was managed and fulfilled, post sales service and support.

Over the past 30 years Microsoft has been responsible for some of the most compelling business products but in today’s climate, Microsoft Customer Dynamics CRM coupled with the move to xRM has the ability to have the biggest impact on business performance. What business would not want to align the voice of the customer with the actions of the business?

The transition throughout the hop to the skip and the jump needs to be fast, fluid, technically adept and with purpose and commitment. Time to give the contact