Sometimes, the more you know, the more worried you are. Dick Lee knows a lot about processes—the specific, incremental activities that businesses use to do just about everything, including managing their relationships with customers.
And not surprisingly, he finds plenty to worry about.
Lee, an independent consultant based in St. Paul, Minnesota, has created a niche for himself around organizational design. Happily untethered from the front office/back office dichotomy that has shaped much of the thinking around business software, he takes a more complete view of how it works – but, first, he starts with the processes that software automates.
In many cases, "my clients mis-define their problems up-front," he says. "Part of the problem is that businesses tend to start their thinking about process from the inside out, with their needs in mind first, and then work out toward the customer." Often, that starts with financial software – "but finance software is easy," Lee says. "Why start there? Why not save it until the hard work's done?"
Instead, he coaches clients in thinking about process by "starting with the customer problems and working outside-in," he says. "Outside-in process design will align all aspects of your company with your customers." That allows the company to build processes around the customer experience, and he's found that often the customer experience is neatly aligned with the business's objectives, anyway.
"When you work from the outside-in, you often find the business is having employees doing work that they didn't need to be doing in the first place," to address problems that have long since been addressed or which were poorly defined. In many cases, these unneeded activities damage the customer experience. By discovering and eliminating these poor processes, the customer experience improves and internal efficiency increases.
Lee's long been a proponent of the idea that looking at things from the customers' point of view is the only way to get mutual improvement for customers and businesses alike. He began his career in sales and marketing but in the 1970s started a marketing agency in the Twin Cities completely oriented around taking the customers' point of view. When he tired of that, he hung out his shingle as a marketing consultant, and while working as a consultant discovered Customer Relationship Management. During an engagement with the Toro Company he was tapped to develop their CRM strategy, even though he'd never worked with the technology. At that point, "I started paying more attention to process," he says. "To make it work, you have to dig down deep into the process—and that's when I began to expand my scope way beyond CRM."
In 1994, he founded High-Yield Methods, his consultancy, and designed his own outside-in process workflow – "the first methodology designed for knowledge workers," he says proudly.
In addition to being a process design pioneer, Dick helped architect the holistic CRM movement that's focused on building customer relationships, rather than CRM software. His books, The Sales Automation Survival Guide, The Customer Relationship Management Survival Guide and Strategic CRM were instrumental in persuading many that CRM is a business strategy executed by well crafted, well-aligned business process, not just software technology. While adept at supporting process with enabling data management and automation systems, Dick never lets technology drive process.
If there's one regret he has about the space, he says, it's that the trends toward interconnectivity in the mid-1990s went by the boards during the tech recession of 2001. "We could have been a lot farther down the road, but financial pressures caused everyone to play it much more conservatively and blunted the momentum," he says. "When the economy came back, we were focused toward online delivery and SaaS. But while that was happening, web services made interconnectivity an issue again – and today it's a lot easier to go back to thinking about it as a critical issue."
Today, Lee continues to work with customers ranging in size from Microsoft, American Express and the University of Minnesota all the way down to businesses with less than $5 million in annual revenue. He reviews the technology, but technology advice is not his primary benefit to customers – "Process leads technology, not the other way around."
While gaining prominence in CRM circles, Lee developed two proprietary methodologies now in common use: The Four Steps to CRM Success, a strategically-oriented, formalized approach to planning a CRM implementation; and Visual Workflow, an approach for aligning business strategies, business process and information technologies.