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Understanding the customer base

May 1, 2008
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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From his Silicon Valley location and a perspective from years spent in the technology industry, the senior director of Internet marketing at CRC Health Group can offer an uncommonly heard spin on addiction treatment providers—in this case, the nation's largest provider of treatment services.

“CRC Health Group, whether it realizes it or not, is a technology company,” says Jim Thompson. “Technology is the way we will succeed as a business.”

Thompson, who has been with the nationally influential for-profit treatment organization for more than two years, has spent much of his time helping the organization understand where its customers are coming from. He sees many treatment organizations throwing a great deal of money at Internet advertising and other marketing strategies without always fully grasping how these approaches are working for them. Thompson has been the lead architect of a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool that gives CRC's treatment hotline operators and other staff the data they need to target services appropriately, tying referral data to the admissions process during the critical period of initial contact with a prospective client.

“Everyone manages their business by gut feeling and instinct. Someone will say, ‘My business is 80% this,’” Thompson says. “But in a shifting business landscape, we emphasize that people turn to evidence-based management. We say, ‘Use data to tell you how to make decisions.’”

Understand the shopper

Though the idea might seem foreign to the typical treatment provider, Thompson tries to encourage CRC staff members to understand potential clients' needs and inquiries as being those of shoppers. Such a focus can allow the organization to understand what it must do in order to serve these customers effectively.

Citing an example to which anyone can relate, Thompson says, “When you call someone for a service and they say, ‘I'll call you tomorrow,’ that's not good enough.” That is how the typical prospective patient will feel.

Because CRC has such an extensive reach, with 50,000 individuals treated each year in its residential, outpatient, online, and opiate replacement therapy programs, it is often the case that consumers might be comparing the services of two CRC programs when making a decision to pursue treatment. The CRM tool allows staff from both programs to share the same information, such as when parents consent to information exchanges as they explore residential treatment options for their child.

The CRM tool, designed with the assistance of a vendor from the high-tech industry, gives staff members real-time information about clients that they can use to inform decision-making. Thompson says it eliminates the need for asking clients to record information multiple times for different viewers.

“The data to collect are immense; there is a lot of information to absorb,” Thompson says. “For CRC, the benefit of the CRM is improved workflow. In a lot of programs you'll find a lot of white boards and sticky pads. But that type of system doesn't allow people to collaborate with one another.”

Thompson advises agencies that are developing a customer relationship management system to build it on as flexible a platform as possible. “You will inevitably begin using it and realize you were wrong about something [in the planning],” he says. “Being able to change it is critical.”

Business intelligence

The CRM tool has given CRC a much clearer picture of where its customers are coming from, as consumers and families encounter the company's services for the first time through a variety of search engines, advertising, and referral information. Part of the CRC technology operation's effort involves making sure CRC-owned agencies appear prominently in the various Internet searches consumers will conduct.

The data generated from the CRM tool assists program officials in their decision-making about how to balance their various promotional efforts, from advertising to partnerships to appearances at conferences that referral sources attend.

Thompson says 42 programs under the CRC umbrella were brought on to use the CRM tool in a two-month period. Another 50 are scheduled to be included.

He hears a great deal of positive feedback about the online tool from various staff members. They focus their comments on its ease of use, ability to organize data, and easy accessibility from any location. He believes the system will constantly evolve to meet the company's emerging needs.

“The system is a living being,” Thompson says. “It will never stop growing.” He adds that it fulfills a need that other tools cannot meet. “Excel spreadsheets are great, but they involve a delay in being able to access usable information about trends,” he says.