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What comes to mind when somebody mentions "C-R-M" to you? Seriously, what's the first thing that you think of? Got it? Good ... now file that away for a moment.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) means different things to different people. In the IT department, CRM is defined one way. Down the hall in marketing or across town at the agency, CRM means something completely different. And if you're a dealer or a field rep, no one has to tell you that customer relationship management can't be reduced to an abbreviation ... it's what you do day-in and day-out.

Gartner Group, an Information Technology research and advisory company, reports that more than half of CRM initiatives don't produce results. Considering the enormous investments in software and time required implementing CRM programs, who but a corporate bean counter would ever admit to such a thing?

The really shocking thing about that statistic is that managing customer relationships effectively isn't an either or proposition. CRM - like business - is nothing without customers. And in a highly competitive marketplace, having a well-oiled CRM program is no longer a luxury, but table stakes.

Nevertheless, for anyone who has spent years advocating and promoting CRM strategies, it's time to face facts: CRM is a dirty word in some corners. True, there are many companies in and outside our industry that have achieved remarkable results by implementing CRM strategies successfully. But for every one company that has, there are several more that have not.

So if you are about to embark on a CRM initiative, or are thinking about taking another run at one, here are five basic principles to guide you toward getting results:

1. Products may become commodities, but customers never can. Marketing builds brands but entire organizations - from customer service reps to the CEO to the truck driver - create and build brand relationships. Every customer interaction should be a value exchange between the customer and the company. And, if you rely on distributors or dealers to promote and sell your products, make sure they understand what your expectations are when it comes to customer relationships.

2. "CRM isn't rocket science, but you can make it rocket science." That's from Lands' End, one of the premier direct sales organizations in the country. They learned long ago that you are better off listening to your customers than your IT department when it comes to enhancing the customer experience. No two customers are alike, so one size doesn't fit all when it comes to managing your interactions with them. Whether by phone, Internet, catalog or face to face, it's the total customer experience that is important.

3. Don't confuse "customer service" with customer advocacy. Put yourself in your customer's shoes for a moment. How many potential touch points are there with your company? Start with the corporate communications campaign and work your way down through the channel to the ultimate point-of-sale - and then factor in things like your customer call center and the "Contact Us" area on your Web site. It only takes one weak link in the chain to destroy a customer relationship.

4. It's not the customer list that's important, it's the customer interaction. There are literally hundreds of databases of farmers, some public but most private. Yet when it comes to farmers' names and addresses, there's a tremendous amount of duplication between lists. Not surprising since farmers are customers of so many different types of products and services and everybody, from the U.S. government to seed, equipment and chemical companies, wants to know who they are. If you are considering renting a mailing list or licensing a database to complement your own customer records, find out the original source of the names and how current the data is. A database that is used by a company to enhance relationships with its own customers is infinitely more valuable than a compiled list of farmers' names.

5. Data has no value by itself ... it's what you do with the data that counts. In the media advertising business, everybody starts out with the same blank ad page or 30-second time slot to create an impression. It's the creative execution that makes the difference. Relationship marketing is the same. Two companies using the same data to market to the same producer will never achieve exactly the same result. But unlike advertising, customer-focused relationship marketing involves feedback mechanisms to tell you - sometimes immediately - if you succeeded or not. Customers and prospects either respond to your efforts to engage them, either by action or transaction, or they don't. It's what happens next that's most important.

Remember the question when we began? The first thing that should always come to mind when you hear "C-R-M" is the customer comes first. And the bottom line is this: treat customers the way you would like to be treated. It's that simple. Because as customers ourselves, we know we choose who we do business with - not the other way around.

Jed Laffery ( is an agir-business consultant with a particular emphasis on data-drive marketing strategies.

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