Why is this simple term--trusted agent--so loaded with meaning? Because, as a company tries to strike up one-to-one relationships with its individual customers, it soon realizes that the single most powerful position in any customer's mind is a position of trust. For that reason, earning the customer's trust almost always becomes one of the earliest goals in any effort to build a long-term relationship with a customer.
Only in a relationship of trust can information pass back and forth freely between buyer and seller. And, in a world of increasingly commodity-like products and services, a relationship founded on trust is the only genuinely sustainable competitive edge. Without trust, you're back to square one--competing on price.
Trust is the currency of all commerce.
Take a moment to consider the Internet. Suddenly you have the capability to network your intelligence with the intelligence of every other human being on the planet with access to a PC and a modem. As the novelty of this phenomenon wears off, the reality will set in: The only networking you'll really want to do is with the people and organizations with which you already have some sort of relationship. And the more trusting that relationship is, the more likely it is that you will be willing to share and exchange your knowledge.
On the other side of this relationship--on the enterprise's side--becoming a trusted agent is usually not an easy thing to accomplish. A trusted agent is one that can be relied upon to make the customer's interests paramount, to speak on the customer's behalf in all its dealings. As a policy, this is a heretical undertaking at most companies, and flies in the face of product-centered principles of marketing and competition. If you and I have no relationship prior to the purchase, and we have no relationship following it, then our entire interaction is centered on a single, solitary transaction. And our interests are diametrically opposed. I want to buy the most product at the lowest price from you, and you want to sell me the least product at the highest price.
In a transaction-based, product-centric business model, buyer and seller are adversaries, no matter how much the seller may try not to act the part. In this kind of business model, practically the only assurance a customer has that she can trust the product and service being sold to her is the general reputation of the brand itself.
But in a 1to1 marketing model the purchase transaction exists within the context of previous transactions and more that will follow. Moreover, the buyer and seller collaborate, with the buyer interacting to specify the product, and the seller responding with some change in behavior appropriate for that buyer. In the CRM business model, in other words, the buyer and seller must be willing to trust each other far beyond the general reputation of the brand.
Translating a "trusted agent" philosophy into commercial reality involves more than simple policy decisions on the enterprise's part, no matter how revolutionary those policies might be. Becoming a trusted agent for your customer requires a deep, cultural change in attitude at most firms.
But at the most basic level, a genuinely trusted agent must be able to remember an individual customer from transaction to transaction, division to division, across the length and breadth of the enterprise. Customer relationships, in other words, must be integrated into every aspect of the business process, so as to harmonize products and services throughout the organization. Without integration, the left hand won't know what the right hand is doing.
It's easy to see that if one division sells aircraft engines and the other sells aircraft engine maintenance contracts, then it makes sense that they should work together--even if tradition dictates otherwise. But the same logic applies in a variety of other situations, some obvious and some not so obvious. One business unit might sell copiers while a sister unit sells toner cartridges and another sister unit sells copier paper. Or one division might sell postage meters while another sells automated mailroom services. Or one sells home mortgages, while another sells credit cards, and yet another sells savings accounts.
Integrating the way an individual customer is treated throughout the enterprise is essential to creating a relationship with that customer and represents the very first, most basic step toward earning her trust. What integration amounts to, as a concept, is simply ensuring that the way the firm behaves toward a particular customer appears "rational" to her. Rationality is achieved when all parts of your enterprise coordinate their activities with respect to this particular customer, based on what she has told you about herself and her needs, and what other things you already know about her.
Such coordination is going to be costly and difficult. But to create a position as a trusted agent in the mind of your customer, you have to develop empathy for the customer. You have to coordinate your activities with respect to that customer, to be able to put yourself in the place of the customer, to take a customer view. And it might be expensive to put the necessary systems into place. But, as one UK consultant put it, if you think empathy is going to be expensive, then you should try apathy.
The central message being brought to you by the pioneers and visionaries in this book is not that creating relationships with customers is difficult and costly. We already know that. The message from these pioneers is that failing to create such relationships might actually prove to be fatal.