In this tech-crazed era, the notion that technology is not crucial in managing customer relationships is a radical one.

Call Debra K. Cox radical.

Ms. Cox, vice president of M&I Support Services, a division of Milwaukee's M&I Bank, told attendees of Thomson Financial's financial services call center conference in Las Vegas last week that technology is not the be-all and end-all of building profitable customer relationships.

"There's an aura that surrounds CRM," said Ms. Cox, referring to the technology that supports customer relationship management. "It's the miracle pill that will cure any ill afflicting any bank or financial institution out there."

Rather, technology is only a tool for carrying out business strategies, Ms. Cox said. For M&I, improving customer relationships meant "tearing apart" a methodology in which it was easier for bankers to conduct their everyday business than it was for customers. The company redefined procedures to improve service consistency, she said, and paid more attention to the needs of online customers.

The first challenge in addressing customer relationship management is defining it and determining which department should be driving it, Ms. Cox said. The departmental structure of banks poses technological challenges and creates a need to break down "cultural barriers" in implementing CRM strategies, she said.

Further, the benefits of CRM are often intangible, making CRM initiatives difficult to cost-justify. All those factors add up to a large-scale problem, Ms. Cox said.

"I can't really find too many banks that have done this and done it well," she said.

Indeed, 15% to 20% of CRM efforts have failed, according to GartnerGroup Inc., a Stamford, Conn., business technology research firm.

Other speakers echoed Ms. Cox's comments. Marge Connelly, senior vice president of domestic card operations and information technology infrastructure for Capital One Services Inc., a Richmond, Va., credit card supplier, said technology enables better call routing and integration of computer and telephone systems, but insight is needed to optimize its benefits.

"Technology is fabulous if used with the right analysis," she said.

First Union Corp. shifted its focus from sales to service about six years ago, said Gail Hoffman, senior vice president of the Charlotte, N.C., banking company's corporate customer service center. Ongoing surveys and advisory groups keep the banking company apprised of customers' needs, and customers are segmented by industry to match them with the employees who can best serve them, she said.

Very profitable customers are automatically routed to one of First Union's three centers so they can interact with the same employees every time they call. Routing is determined by geography, a consideration Ms. Hoffman said is important.

"It makes a difference if someone from the North hears a slightly different accent," she said. "When they hear someone from the South say, 'How are y'all?,' they want to know where that person is.

"We do not have a high degree of technology," she said. "But even with that lack of technology, we've hit on something that works, and our customers seem very satisfied."

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