What a very nice machine

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the many ironies of modern life is that the UK's largest retailers are striving to introduce something our grandparents took for granted. Namely, home deliveries.

To the cynic, nothing better illustrates the propensity of management gurus to put old wine in new bottles. But it also demonstrates what is perhaps the most taxing conundrum confronting the big corporates. All of them are, to a greater or lesser extent, seeking to benefit from economies of scale while presenting themselves to the world as some latterday "mom- and-pop store".

The means of doing this is technology. Due to the convergence of computers and tele-communications, for example, a salesman from a utility can be presented with a host of details on his computer screen that enables him to sound as if he is greeting an old friend.

Equally, data collected by a loyalty card allows a supermarket to send you details of special offers that may appeal to you. And the internet - combined with an electronic reminder that you haven't bought baked beans for a month - is how retailers obtain details of what you want delivered.

None of this is foolproof, though. We have all heard stories of supposedly highly targeted but hilariously botched direct mailing: seed catalogues sent to tower blocks; mortgage offers sent to people who are already home-loan customers; details of special deals for new customers sent to existing customers, and the rest.

The constant flow of technological innovation allows all kinds of developments in "mass customisation". But it is still a long way from providing faultless customer service.

The less obvious effect of this is that companies seem to put their faith in more technology. They know the technology in which they have invested so far has not produced the goods, but they seem to think that either they have not utilised it properly or that the latest model will do what they have always wanted. There does not seem to be any thought that the technology can only get them so far.

This issue is part of the background to a new report on customer relationship management. Indeed, the survey commissioned by Hatton Blue, a software vendor, finds that many business managers blame IT colleagues for the lack of progress in this area.

The research, "Customer Relationship Management: Hot Topic or Hot Air?", finds that managers generally agree there are four main ways in which the concept can help them: by lowering the cost of acquiring customers; retaining customers for longer; providing more opportunities for cross- selling; and enabling them to behave like the new entrants that are causing such havoc for established players in sectors as diverse as financial services and air travel. And the report warns that they must be prepared to take an integrated approach to implementing such initiatives.

But the emphasis is on software and other forms of technology. The human factor hardly merits a mention.

The report does urge organisations to involve business users throughout the implementation, pointing out that unless they are committed to it, "cultural inertia cannot be overcome". But this is not a very positive approach.

It implies that people are the barrier when they should be the enabler, or the means of making sense of all that technologically generated information. Of course, corporates can create an image of service by using technology of this sort, and clever application of it may well help differentiate one from another.

But they should not be surprised if we do not really love them as much as we do that local supplier who genuinely knows our name.