The Greatest Generation’s CRM Lessons

They’ve been called the Greatest Generation, and I knew a number of them that certainly fit the bill. Returning as victors from the front lines of World War II, they rolled up their sleeves and turned their attention to an America remade in the image of the war effort — industrious, proud, and resilient through and through. Many were classic pragmatic individualists, but some small business owners, like my grandfather, loved engaging with their local communities and managed to deliver memorable experiences to their customers with an extraordinarily personal touch.

In fact, I can still picture the scene as though it were yesterday: my grandfather, hunched over the counter of his small grocery store in Covington, Kentucky, scribbling notes in a well-worn leather journal. Squinting over the rims of his glasses, he would write things like “Elizabeth Jackson — due Oct. 9” or “James R., b-day 8–22–31 — loves Linz’s new dills.” Sometimes, on a slow Sunday afternoon, I’d sit on the tall stool by the counter and flip through the pages of the battered notebook, marveling at how busy my grandpa was and how much he seemed to know about every single one of the customers who regularly visited his store.

One particular Sunday in June, for instance, I remember him making notes next to a list of his most frequent customers — individuals that today’s CRM systems might classify in the “Premier Segment.” When these men and women entered the store, my grandfather would always seem to pull out some special favorite item saved just for them, awaiting their expected return. They were delighted, of course, just as the kids were when he’d remember their birthdays, offering them a little chocolate bar from behind the counter as a complementary gift. It cost him little, but he reaped plenty in customer loyalty from these little moments of surprise.

Naturally, I have fond memories of “working” in the store with my grandfather — snapshots from a relatively idyllic childhood in Middle America. But recently it dawned on me that my grandfather was actually doing something pretty innovative, at least judging by contemporary trends. What seemed to him like an obvious way to serve his customers was, in many ways, something that might be considered a leading-edge approach to customer engagement today. It’s an approach that may not have scaled very well and was eventually replaced by the more impersonal call center, but I’m not alone in thinking that something important was lost in the transition.

So what can we learn from my grandfather’s store and the charmingly personalized customer service of yesteryear? To me, two points in particular stand out:

1. Get Yourself a Modern CRM
 First, we should probably concede that what worked for members of the Greatest Generation operating small retail establishments doesn’t necessarily translate well for any enterprise corporations or mobile startups today. Using a leather notebook as an improvised CRM may have been forward-thinking in 1970s Covington, but it’s also, of course, the very definition of quaint. Most small businesses today — let alone midsized and enterprise organizations — need modern CRM software to maintain a customer database that is scalable, updatable, and easily accessible from multiple locations and by multiple employees at once. After all, if you don’t make the effort to remember your customers, why should they bother remembering you?

2. Know that CRMs Alone Don’t Cut It
 My grandfather’s leather-bound “CRM” was used every day and was, eventually, filled with his scrawling, all-capitals handwriting, listing individual customers’ preferences, birthdays, anniversaries, graduation dates, and so on. You might say that it was, for its time and place, verging on qualifying as “big data.” But in the end, that’s all it was: data. It took my grandfather’s active, real-time engagement with that data — plus his genuine care for his customers — to bring it to life, making it usable and actionable in the moment to enhance his actual, one-to-one interactions with customers in his store. On its own, his “CRM” was just ink in an old battered notebook, collecting dust behind the counter when not in use, and not really something he could refer to and thumb through while engaging with customers in his store. He could only study his journal and master its contents ahead of time or after the fact, but the only magic happened in the present moment of customer engagement, and such opportunities presented themselves every day.

I think the same is true of today’s digital CRMs. They’re incredibly versatile repositories of data, forming a nice archive of customer history, but they don’t necessarily help employees to engage more effectively with individual customers in the moment, as a “system of engagement” instead of merely a “system of record.” For that, you need a digital customer experience platform — a tool that can leverage the power of a CRM by augmenting historical data with real-time information from customer engagements as they’re happening. By helping employees to issue the most appropriate, proactive, personalized responses to individual customers in real time — whether they contact you by phone, email, SMS, live chat, or even social media — these integrated platforms represent, in my opinion, the real cutting-edge of customer engagement. They give you all the information you need at your fingertips while keeping your attention focused on the customer you’re currently engaging with, allowing you to deliver a more customized, attentive, and seamless customer experience overall.

As useful as my grandfather’s leather notebook may have been, the CX systems we have today are something he could have only dreamed of back in the good old days. But his intention to deliver great moments of customer engagement remains ahead of its time.

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