Who owns the "Customer"?

I decided to start this week with the topic of customer/prospect ownership because I was involved in several meetings this past week where we were dealing with the first deployment of CRM for a company and a consolodation of various databases in another company.  In the case of both organizations they were dealing with one fundamental question, "Who owns the customer?"

It is not a surprise that both companies I was meeting were involved in various types of brokerage activities.  In the case of of company none of their people wanted to enter information into the new system until business was actually transacted and entry was mandatory.  In the case of the other the brokers wanted the ability to share information but very selectively.  In other words, they wanted a system that was a company-wide system limited to the people that each one of them trusts.

Both of these firms have been struggling with these issues for well over a year as they each have several hundred people in business development roles and they operate in cross-over situations and do not have specified territories.  This is a situation that whatever decision made by the company will be 50% right and 50% wrong.  Let me explain.

From the stand point of people that are primary business developers there is a sense of "ownership" and possessiveness regarding their book of contacts.  In other words, what ever contacts they meet are theirs and whatever leads the company sends them are theirs.  Arguments can and have been made that without their personal touch these lists of names have little or no value.

The other point of view comes from the companies that employ these brokers and sales people.  There are two contingents inside any particular sales organization.  One group are the long time employees that built their book of business with the firm they are with.  The remainder of the employee base is usually a set of transitory employees that work at a firm for a few years in search of the best payouts.  Both have their reasons for protecting their territory and the issue must be dealt with head on when implementing CRM or consolidating into a single customer database.

Regardless of when your organization makes the decision it must ultimately make a decision to set policy regarding systems and customer data.  No matter when the decision is made it will be unpopular.  The group of longtime employees will distrust management and suspect lower payouts over time.  They will also fear those transitory employees that they don't have long term relationships with and are suspect of their access to large volumes of customer data.  Lastly, those people that have moved from job to job are inherently fearful of leaving data in a place where it may be difficult or impossible to remove once entered in a centralized system.

The harsh reality for any and all consolidation of customer data involves the setting of expectations.  First, if producers or sales people are W-2 employees it needs to be communicated that the company owns data and all ownership and compensation will be related to the system of record.  Next, it is important to remind people that it is impossible to protect their leads and contacts if the company does not know who they are.  And finally, there must be a level of trust between employee and employer and this must be constantly reinforced until it becomes your culture.

I have seen more money spent on more systems trying to skirt the issue and satisfy fears and distrust from the front line people that bring in the money.  They put in complex security rules and spend more money to revamp them time after time without dealing with the real issue of customer ownership.  If dealt with properly you will still lose some people but the people that remain will be much more able to work within your rules and guidelines.


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