What Are The Two Antidotes to Sucking At CRM and Customer Experience?

“We’re not going to get a perfect solution in the short-term”

Talk abounds, advice abounds: the road to organisational nirvana is laid out by many a guru, professor and consultant. Talk about big data, customer analytics and customer insight. Talk about marketing effectiveness and marketing automation. Talk about sales effectiveness and sales force automation. Talk about great customer service. Talk about CRM. And talk about Customer Experience. Yet, little really changes: I see managers grappling with the same challenges that they were grappling with in 1999 when it comes to marketing, sale, service, and CRM. 

Given the abundance in talk why is it that so little changes when it comes to organisational behaviour and organisational effectiveness?  Let’s take a look at this question from the position of being on the court (in the organisation) rather than in the stands as a journalist/reporter (which is how many gurus, professors and consultants show up for me).

Working with a number of people grappling with the challenge of improving the sales process, improving customer service, enabling CRM and improving the Customer Experience across the entire customer journey one manager exclaimed We’re not going to get a perfect solution in the short-term”. What led to this statement?  Days of grappling with the challenge; coming face to face with the many and interlinked factors – culture, people, process, systems, data, metric, business priorities – in the way of making any significant changes-improvements.

If you and I had been on the court grappling with the challenges that this manager was grappling with then I say that it is highly likely, almost certain, that we would have arrived at the same place: this is too much to take on, let’s focus on what is doable in the short-term.

A history of short-term local fixes leaves room only for short-term local fixes 

Given how everything is interlinked to everything (the systems nature of organisations) and the desire of Tops for ‘instant solutions’ to specific problems, Middles get busy on the short-term fixes and the quick wins. What is missed is that today there is only room for short-term fixes and quick wins because previously management took the route of the short-term fix instead of doing that which was necessary for generating longer term effectiveness.

Every time we intervene in the organisation we make a choice. What choice?  The choice to leading the organisation to higher performance or generating a drift to low performance. In fixing the pressing local-functional problem, focusing on the short-term, and going after quick wins, the Tops and Middles are generating a drift to low performance. How/why? Let’s listen to a noted systems thinker, Donella H. Meadows.

“Some systems not only resist policy and stay in a normal bad state, they keep getting worse. One name for this archetype is “drift to low performance”. Examples include falling market share in a business, eroding quality of service in a hospital, continuously dirtier rivers or air ….. state of …… schools…..”

How does this drift to low performance occur? 

“The actor in the feedback look (… government, business, hospital….), has …. a performance goal or desired system state that is compared to the actual state. If there is a discrepancy, action is taken……

But in this system, there is a distinction between the actual system state and the perceived state. The actor tends to believe the bad news more than the good news. As actual performance varies, the best results are dismissed as aberrations, the worst results stay in the memory. The actor thinks things are worse than they really are.

And to complete this tragic archetype, the desired state of the system is influenced by the perceived state. Standards aren’t absolute. When perceived performance slips, the goal is allowed to slip.  “Well, that’s about all you can expect.” ……. “Well, look around, everybody else is having trouble too.”

The lower the perceived system state, the lower the desired state. The lower the desired state, the less discrepancy, and the less corrective action is taken. The less corrective action, the lower the system state. If this loop is allowed to run unchecked, it can lead to continuous degradation in the system’s performance.

Another name for this system is “eroding goals”. It is also called the “boiled frog syndrome”……. Drift to low performance is a gradual process. If the system is plunged quickly. there would be an agitated corrective process. But if it drifts down slowly enough to erase the memory of (or belief in) how much better things used to be, everyone is lulled not lower and lower expectations, lower effort, lower performance.”

Here I ask you to be present to what the manager said after grappling with the challenge: “We’re not going to get a perfect solution in the short-term.” Do you see, how it is that if one takes this reasonable approach the organisation almost never gets around to creating-putting in place the ‘perfect solution’?  How/why? Because it is never the right team to make difficult decisions, create-accept short-term pain in order to generate longer term effectiveness!

What are the antidotes to eroding goals and the drift to low performance? 

In her book, Thinking In Systems, Donnella H. Meadows points out that there are two antidotes:

One is to keep standard absolute, regardless of performance. Another is to make goals sensitive to the best performances of the past, instead of the worst..….. if one takes the best results as standard, and the worst results as a temporary setback, then the same system structure can pull the system up to better and better performance.

This reminds me of my father. When I was young my father insisted that a) I finish whatever I started no matter what; b) do the best that I was capable of doing; c) strive to do better than I did the last time; d) set my sights on the best performer in the class; and e) take the short-term pain in order to generate the longer term gain.

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant. Passionate about enabling customer-centricity by calling forth the best from those that work in the organisation and the intelligent application of digital technologies. Subject matter expert with regards to customer strategy, customer insight, customer experience (CX), customer relationship management (CRM), and relationship marketing. Working at the intersection of the Customer, the Enterprise (marketing, sales, service), and Technology.

5 thoughts on “What Are The Two Antidotes to Sucking At CRM and Customer Experience?”

  1. Maz,

    As always you make some excellent points. However I firmly believe that in the case of customer experience, and for that matter any worthwhile endeavor, there must be room for understanding the full scope of what is required to succeed and the need to make small but important and measurably incremental steps to achieve your goal.

    In a recent article where I introduced the Four Principles of Customer Experience as similar to the natural laws that we must follow, I borrowed Stephen Covey’s maxim about a farmer who decides to take the summer off and then plants his fields in September hoping to fast track his crops in the Autumn. Our world is now one of instant gratification “Lose 20lbs in two days” ” Work out for two minutes a day to get fit” “Become pop star in 30 days” Alright I made that last one up, we know that Simon Cowell can do that instantly.

    The point is this. For many things that we do both personally and professionally, we must establish mini-goals and objectives that are challenging, but that can still be achievable in a realistic time frame. If we only set one goal for one week, then I agree that’s a short term fix. But a clearly laid out program with milestones and rewards is, for most of us, the only route to long term success.


    1. Hello Gerry,
      First, I thank you for moving from the stands (of reading the post) and into the court by sharing your perspective, your stance.

      I say that it is useful to distinguish between one’s stand-commitment-desired outcome and the approach one uses to live ones stance-commitment and cause the desired outcome. It occurs to me that the mark of intelligence is flexibility in approach in the service of a firm stance-commitment. If this is what you are saying then I find myself to be in agreement with you.

      Now let’s look at the assertion that you make: “For many things that we do both personally and professionally, we must establish mini-goals and objectives that are challenging, but that can still be achievable in a realistic time frame.”

      Here is my question-challenge, what is realistic? How does one know what is realistic? What are the fundamental (‘objective’) grounds for determining ‘realistic’. For example, dedicated muslims even in hot countries will go without food and water for 12+ hours, whilst doing a full days work during the month of Ramadan. Yet, we will complain if asked to miss lunch!

      Some may say that it is unrealistic to give a 10 year old a budget (clothes, stationery, entertainment, gifts …) and ask him/her to manage this budget. And this is what I have been doing with my children. None of them thought this was realistic. None of our friends thought this was realistic. And each of my children do manage their budgets – they have learned by being given the responsibility and having to carry it.

      Take schooling. If you go to the traditional schools you will encounter actors (teachers, teaching assistant, headmasters, local authority …) and the ‘system’ completely convinced that using the Montessori Method is unrealistic. Yet, there are private schools that do run, and run well, using the Montessori Method.

      Imagine what the world would be like if Steve Jobs had been realistic. I’d be using a Nokia phone rather than an iPhone. I’d be using a dull IBM-Dell laptop instead of the beautiful MacBook Air (to write this response).

      Imagine if Nelson Mandela had been realistic. Who would know of his existence? Who would be mourning his death today?

      Let’s finish with Roger Bannister and the four minute mile. The experts considered anything less than the four minute mile to be beyond the human body. And just about everybody accepted this. Then Roger Bannister came along …..

      Allow me to sum up. It occurs to me that almost all of us show up as reasonable, lead reasonable lives, and generate reasonable lives. Then there are a few who show up as ‘unreasonable’, lead unreasonable lives, and generate unreasonable results. Yet, for these people what showed up as ‘unreasonable’ for us, showed up as ‘reasonable’ for them.

      I wish you the very best.



  2. I’d never thought of those dynamics Maz, they are very enlightening.

    I used to work for the world’s most unrealistic Marketing Director. She routinely insisted on having her cake and eating it to. At the time I thought she was the most unreasonable, bloody minded woman in the world. But now on reflection I see she was invariably right.

    Enjoyed the post



  3. Hi Maz,

    Thank you for your encouraging words and thoughtful response. As I recognize that if we got in to a semantic discourse, it’s likely that your greater intellect would probably carry the day. So let me keep this fairly simple ( and please don’t ask me what is simple!)

    I agree with, and can understand, your examples of what is, or isn’t, realistic, and the fact that the world would be a worse place if the people that you reference hadn’t stepped out of their realistic comfort zone. However, my point was really to focus on customer experience and to propose that, if a small group of people came together to design a strategy, they may very well have different ideas on what was realistic. But, in that scenario, I would expect that they would come together for the greater good to agree on goals that, independently may not stretch them, but as a group and as a team are in concert as to their veracity and their ability to achieve them. In other words are realistic.

    I know that it’s not a perfect world, especially when it comes to CE, but given the current state of its deployment in many companies, then a journey of a thousand miles………

    Thank you for continuing to inspire people to go further in whatever they strive for.

    Best regards



  4. Hi Maz,
    I know of the ‘boiled frog syndrome’ idea and have used it before but have never applied it to performance standards and how they can slip. Thank makes complete sense so thank you for that. 🙂

    All the best,



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