Sunday, January 28, 2007

Another Big Lie: Customer Relationship Management

In my last blog I devoted a lot of attention to the continuing development of CRM (Customer Relationship Management) technology and the dangerous consequences of its growing use. I first started writing about this when I encountered a report of "user-hostile" customer service associated with changing an airline reservation. I realized that, while it was definitely right to attack the airline industry about such service, the problem could probably be traced to the industry's dependence on CRM software, most likely being run at an outsourced call center. Ironically, this was all prompted by my reading an article in E-Commerce Times/CRM Buyer; and the double irony is that this article now seems to have been expunged from their archive.

However, the beat goes on, as they say; and last October CRM Buyer ran a report about the fact that call centers were now spending $400 million annually on recently-developed "emotion detection" technology. Again, this story is no longer in the archive; but I was able to recover a comment I made at the time it appeared. Today we got a story that is basically promoting one of the providers of this "emotion detection" technology, Autonomy. I have decided that the only explanation (excuse?) for throwing this kind of technology at a situation that keeps going from bad to worse is a desperate nostalgia to make the service economy look like a production economy. In the spirit of the kind of analytic methodology I have been employing in this new blog, the best way to examine the underlying pathology of CRM is to take apart the terminology word-by-word:

CUSTOMER: Back in the days when it was a production economy and there was no Internet, any successful salesman could tell you the quickest path to failure was to treat the customer as an object, rather than a subject. CRM has perverted this principle on both sides of the coin. Not only has the customer been objectified, but anyone the customer ever contacts is also objectified! This is why stories about "user-hostile" customer service, such as the one cited above, will continue to appear. Of course the ultimate nightmare story about this kind of objectification was actually not a technology story. This was the story that Spike Lee told in When the Levees Broke, where we saw the "objectification of the subject" at its worst. While we may not be able to blame CRM technology, itself, for the mishandling of the Katrina disaster, the mentality behind that mishandling is certainly a reflection of the mentality behind the technology.

RELATIONSHIP: The distinction here is between transactions and engagements. A relationship between two subjects is an engagement, an ongoing process in which awareness (including listening) is as important as delivery. Transactions abstract the concept of relationship by reducing it to relations between objects. Awareness, of course, involves more than the semantics of text. If you cannot hold a conversation and sense (without the assistance of technology) that the person you are talking to is angry, then there is something wrong with your psychological makeup. That is the sort of awareness that makes us human and enables relationships on a subject-to-subject basis.

MANAGEMENT: The bottom line here is that technology providers have no idea what they are managing or why they are managing it. All that seems to matter are productivity statistics, which are far from the best indicator that a business is doing a good job. Of course, if the concept of "customer" has been perverted, then the concept of "customer satisfaction" has been banished to an exile in ultima Thule! The business has thus liberated itself from worrying about customer satisfaction, and customer anger mounts to the point where the customer finally takes action to the disadvantage of the business.

So this is the world that technology has made, and it seems as if the Internet has both necessitated and proliferated its distribution. We might ask users of the technology if they are satisfied with it, but how can we ask a question about a concept they have banished from their working vocabulary? This seems to be a case where the Lie is so big that most of us no longer recognize it as a lie (which is precisely that "force of credibility" that Hitler had in mind)!

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