Before we had CRM, what did businesses do?
Only a few of the companies or sales reps who called on our family jewelry and giftware business had any records related to what we were buying. Even sales managers (a misnomer, if there ever was one) who occasionally made the rounds had no idea what we were—or were not—buying. I found them trying to sell us things we already had. Because my mentors had set up good hand-kept inventory control records, it mattered not that they did not have this information with them. (Well, it did matter. We looked upon them as a nuisance.)
Those salesman—there were only one or two women—who did have information with them kept it in all sorts of different formats. Each one had his own peculiar system. It was, remember, far before CRM was another word for automation.
‘When it came time for the husband to buy a gift, the salesperson could look at the card and see if there was a matching piece.’
One diamond jewelry salesman itemized and dated purchases on 3-by-5-inch cards. First thing he did, before meeting with my uncle or brother—our buyers—was to look in our showcases to see which of his goods we still had. When it came time to show his line, he suggested that we could trade in those items we had had for more than a certain amount of time for new pieces on a two-to-one basis. His idea was to have us stock what was, for us, the best-selling items but still be able to write a substantial order. Understand that the jewelry his company made was really very classic, and what we didn’t sell, his other customers very likely could.
One salesman who called on me, as buyer of giftware and tableware, always had a list of back-ordered items, items previously purchased and items purchased but not reordered. Oh, how I wish all the other representatives had done that. Instead, we usually had to go through our records and ask the rep to write down what was on back order. The hope was that eventually, we would be able to reconcile our records.
Because the types of merchandise our store carried were so diverse, we had—in my recollection—19 different formats reacting to what our customers bought. The diamond jewelry department had file drawers of index cards, one for each customer, listing what the person had bought. In those days, most of our jewelry customers were men buying for women. When it came time for the husband to buy a gift, the salesperson could look at the card and see if there was a matching piece to suggest or if it was best to give her something different. It was not unusual for women to come in and tell us what they would like, which we immediately added to the card
Bridal registration is less of a factor today. It’s still used, but the wedding gift business has changed. Yet, how we used our bridal registry is an example of what a product-customer-centric tailored system can do. Most people do not realize that bridal registration started as a merchant’s tool, as a way to cut down on duplicate gifts and, thus, cut down on returns. Outwardly, customers saw it as a way to help them buy shower and wedding gifts. Registration morphed from pages in three-ring binders to individual cards for each bride with pertinent information. We tallied the item purchases to cut down on overselling the same item in the bride’s selected patterns.
Customers who did not want to buy just another piece in the bride’s pattern could still use the registry to get an idea of what she would like. For general gifts, our registration cards listed both the types of things the brides liked and those they did not, saving them from having to return items, as well as cutting our costs associated with exchanges. Every department that sold bridal gifts had copies of upcoming wedding registration information. The cards were close by, kept in alpha accordion files for easy access.
By necessity, we had to create a cross reference of grooms’ names because groom’s friends did no always know a bride’s name. This also helped when someone wanted to fill in or add to the bride’s patterns long after she had taken her husband’s last name. For vendor promotions, while it took time and effort, our sales staff went through the files and pulled out registration cards that listed patterns being promoted, so we could let couples know when their patterns went on sale.
Bridal registration should have been a natural for automation. It was, and it was not. When early stores began automating their systems, I determined it was not for us. The big drawback was that the information was not handy. The records had to be brought up on the monitor, so our salespeople either had to make the customer wait while they printed out the laundry list or run back and forth between the monitor and the merchandise. Checking recently into some automated bridal registration systems, I found that they didn’t show the customers which merchandise had already been purchased. Over the years, my clients have asked me if they should automate their gift registration. I tell them yes for some aspects but not if they wish to have a product-customer-centric strategy.
Customer retention management before CRM systems referred to a quality of service, with easily accessible records, well-trained and knowledgeable salespeople and merchandise that was perceived by customers as good quality for the money. These were a reflection of may other things that vendors and we did that kept customers coming back for more.
So, I ask, is automation meant to help businesses replace well-trained and knowledgeable salespeople with those less trained and less knowledgeable? Or is it meant to help customers shop by catalog or the Internet? Or is it meant to keep up with the growth of the business and its customer base—and the commensurate need to consolidate many customized systems into one system that may not meet all of everyone’s needs but will meet the common needs of all?
In other words, has the computer, with all its good points, taken the “personality” out of both merchandise and customers? Isn’t personality what CRM is supposed to be about?