Here are the influential voices leading the conversations where nonprofits and technology overlap.
Technology is the backbone of any great company, and it should be designed to help a business understand its customers and their needs. Whether you're Amazon or a family-run, bricks-and-mortar business like Mitchells/Richards/Marshs, information technology can help us treat our customers like dear friends.
Many companies deploy sophisticated software that they adapt their business to fit "because that's the way the technology works." At Mitchells/Richards/Marshs we've been collecting personal and professional data on our customers and using it to shower them with attention for more than three decades. That's how we've grown the business that my parents started in 1958 with a bare-bones inventory of three suits, into a $70 million high-end men's and women's clothier. We achieve this volume in Westport, Conn., a town of just 28,000 people, and in nearby Greenwich, with a population of about 60,000. Roughly every other household in this area is a customer, because at some point we gave them a very pleasant and memorable shopping experience — what we refer to metaphorically as "hugging" our customers.
The computer system we developed to help us keep track of what we know about our customers — still running on an IBM AS/400 that replaced our original System/34 in the late 1980s — fits the way we do business, not the other way around. The system is simple, and everyone, including sales associates, buyers, tailors and delivery people, uses it daily.
For a customer relationship management (CRM) system to be effective and spur business growth, it must be focused on the customer — not on products and inventory, and not on sales or profitability. When we developed our system, we asked ourselves: "What do we really need to know about our customers to make them feel like they are friends?" Obviously, we want their contact information, but to really service them and develop a close relationship with them, we also want their birthdays, their anniversary dates, plus business, family and personal information, including hobbies, the names of their pets or whether they root for the Yankees or the Red Sox. Of course, we need to know every single purchase they've ever made with us, down to the SKU (Stock Keeping Unit) too.
More important than the database itself, however, is the culture of customer relationships that permeates the organization. Our family, our buyers, everybody who's on the sales floor, all know that by getting the proper data about their customers, they can personalize the relationship — greeting them by name when they visit the store, sending personalized thank-you letters, birthday cards and anniversary notes. It just becomes a way of life.
And it starts at the top. It starts with a family that really enjoys the personalization of the relationships. Once you have that, then the rest of the organization follows. When I'm at home and want to take a break, I hit F6 on my computer, put in a few parameters and pull up the data on our top 1,000 customers. I study them like vocabulary words for the SATs. As I once knew all the stats on Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, I now try to know all the stats on my best customers. Because that's the game: knowing the customer. As I like to say, you can remember 250 names really comfortably, if that's what your priority is. But after that, it's difficult to remember everything about everybody. That's why we have technology. It's that simple.