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Time to Manage Customer Relationships

"I have no time to serve all my customers," said a client with customer management responsibilities, "and I can't get any more people to help me. What should I do?"

I answered the question with some questions of my own:

"Do you budget your time?"

If a person works about 2200 hours a year, how many hours are to be allocated to the tasks of management, personnel development, administration and so on, and how many remain for relationship management and business development?

"Do you have enough hours to achieve your revenue objectives?"

There may not be enough time in the year to achieve the expected results if all customers are treated equally. How much time is needed to achieve the business results? This leads to the next question.

"How do you prioritize your customers?"

It makes sense to prioritize customers according to who they are and what activities must be performed to serve them.

Customers are obviously not equal. If time is a most precious resource, it makes sense to spend time where there is the potential for most revenue yield. Generally this means focusing on large and strategic customers or customer clusters, or major decision influencers. (Customer clusters are sets of customers who are distinguished more by their behaviors than by their demographics).

Larger customers or important decision influencers such as those in government or industry associations usually merit personal attention, but, as will be noted, some tasks can be automated. Conversations with other customers might best be held using non-personal or less personal means, such as by using web transactions, newsletters, e-marketing, conferences and so on.

Time can also be managed according to what needs to be done for customers. Repetitive tasks can be automated, leaving the non-recurring or adaptive tasks for personal involvement. Many companies automate most of the processes for their smaller customers but smaller customers, like many larger ones, also have tasks that require human intervention.

"Do you have a customer portfolio that reflects customer importance?"

A portfolio of customers can be established according to customer profitability and growability, as Peppers and Rogers suggested some time ago. Additionally, a scoring system can be used to weight the importance of accounts or customers according to criteria such as profitability, strategic value, number of products or services bought, revenue opportunity, and so on. Then, with time as a key constraint, customers can be triaged and personal and non-personal means of communications established.

"Do you measure results?"

Revenues and customer satisfaction are traditional measures of performance use for planning purposes but other customer-specific and predictive measures of future results might be helpful, such as customer share, competitive purchase intent and relationship measures. A relationship management plan for each account can use a spreadsheet with measurable objectives such as those mentioned, communications methods and frequency, and responsibilities and timing.

"Has your boss approved your time budget?"

Once it is clear how customers are to be managed and how much time is to be expended on each one, it obviously becomes important to ensure your boss's buy-in. But what if he/she expects all customers to be treated equally? What if the boss operates according to the pressures of the day rather than a formal customer plan? And what if your boss doesn't value your initiative here or can't allocate the time to go through your time budget? Although pioneering is hard, the status quo might be worse. It could be a good idea to have a training session to introduce the concepts to all the managers and to encourage a comprehensive assessment of sales and account management processes, how to take time out and where to focus for results. A third party may be of assistance here; pick someone who can move you ahead quickly without boiling the ocean.