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French Version

Lebanese businesses awaken to a new relationship with customers (Daily Star)

But the bible of modern marketing gurus, known as CRM, comes at a cost
Prominent local professors have been spreading the word to entrepreneurs

Good customer relationships are at the heart of business success. As Lebanon continues its struggle to regain ground in the Middle East business arena, many companies have looked to adopt Western developments to become more customer oriented.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) is among the latest business buzzwords believed to transform companies into efficient customer-centric organizations. However, companies should be cautious of what they are buying into.

The term CRM generally refers to a broad range of IT software that helps an organization better interact with its customers. It is a strategy used to learn more about customers' needs and behaviors in order to develop stronger relationships with them. Some examples of CRM include call-center and sales-force automation software and applications that let marketing departments manage their campaigns and mailing lists.

Worldwide, organizations are experiencing fundamental changes in the way they operate and interact with their customers. Corporate focus has moved from improving internal operations to concentrating more on customers. Many companies turned to technological solutions like CRM to help re-orient their focus towards the customer as it automates and improves processes associated with managing customer relationships in the areas of sales, marketing, customer service, and support. Benefits include improved organizational effectiveness brought about by reducing sales cycles and selling costs, identifying new markets and channels for expansion, and improving customer value.

In Lebanon, developments and use of CRM lag behind other Middle Eastern countries, like the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Last year's strategic partnership between European-based Altitude Software, a provider of contact center solutions, and Lebanon-based systems integrator Libatel enabled channel distributors to grow their businesses by offering local marketing, training and technical support for the Middle East region. However, most of the customers for this service are not based in Lebanon. Customers include several major banks and call center services in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Enterprise software companies like the Oracle Corporation and suppliers of CRM software like Sage Middle East, with head offices in the UAE also serve many clients in the region, but mostly those outside of Lebanon.

Two prominent business professors at AUB's Olayan School of Business outlined the reasons why Lebanon has yet to catch up to other markets in the Middle East with developments in CRM. Imad J. Zbib is chairman of the Management, Marketing and Entrepreneurship Program, and Marc J. Martin is a visiting associate professor of the same program. According to Martin, author of several publications on CRM, most organizations, "talk the talk, but do not walk the walk" when it comes to fundamentally understanding what CRM entails.

Previously an academic and consultant in the US for two decades, Zbib points out that, in Lebanon, the transparency of information, an essential tool in the implementation of CRM, is lacking. "CRM requires integration and sharing data and information. The Lebanese people tend to be reserved when it comes to sharing data." However, he quickly added that Lebanon is not too far behind other front runners in the Middle East, but several changes need to be made to the business culture here. "Lebanon is behind because businesses focus on short-term success instead of long-term growth and prosperity. CRM requires good change management skills. Very few top managers and business owners in Lebanon have awakened to the importance of satisfying the customer, and the importance of satisfying and motivating employees who are internal customers."

Martin believes that understanding and utilizing CRM in Lebanon will increase over the next 5-10 years with the country's associate membership in the EU and a concomitant increase in foreign competition. Additionally, "traveling Lebanese and foreign tourists encounter CRM in other markets and desire it in Lebanon. Some Lebanese understand the competitive wisdom of CRM for the success of the organization," he says. Zbib additionally gives credit to consulting firms that are promoting CRM to their clients.

With failure rates of CRM claimed to have run up to 70 percent in developed markets, companies must become more aware of the requirements needed to successfully implement this highly expensive software. The most immediate challenge for Lebanon is that other countries in the region perceive CRM as an investment rather than an expense. Most problems occur because of this lack of understanding. To successfully implement CRM, both Martin and Zbib emphasize the need for senior management and support, employee awareness and involvement, a cohesive match of the corporate strategy with the goals of CRM, organizational structural adaptations, and, most importantly, training.

Efforts are being made to raise awareness and push developments of CRM in the region, but at different qualification levels. "I've seen some people who claim to be experts in the area when in fact they are not. Companies are advised to be careful when they shop for CRM programs and software," warns Dr. Zbib. In the university setting, AUB integrates CRM in almost every marketing course that it offers its business students. In addition, through its Regional and External Programs (REP) office, training and consultations in CRM are provided to companies all over the Middle East.

In an increasingly global and competitive market, it is imperative for Lebanese businesses to understand as Martin puts it: "If you do not have a customer, you probably will not have a job."

Beirut 08-08-2004
Pamela Shehadi
The Daily Star

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