GM's Kirk streamlines direct marketing

Meet the self-described computer guy behind General Motors' direct marketing.

Chuck Kirk has been general manager of enterprise customer management at GM since October 1998, shortly before the company started sharing one customer database. That means that he's responsible for consolidating all customer contact functions across the company.

The role is significant to GM marketers because Kirk controls information about all consumers who have contacted the company and how each division has responded to them. He also provides data to marketers to help them improve programs.

Kirk joined GM in February 1997 as information officer of customer experience. Before coming to the automaker, he had been chief information officer at Fruit of the Loom Ltd. and vice president of international systems at FedEx Corp.

Staff Reporter Julie Cantwell talked with Kirk about the role of enterprise customer management in marketing.

How large is your overall database?

We're upward of 30 million customers. These are the bought-new customers.

How much has GM's customer response improved because of the work you've done with the enterprise customer management group?

It's hard to get much below five days because you lose two or three days in the U.S. mail. But you can get some of the front-end processes down from 10 days to around one or two.

How much money have you saved?

Double-digit percentages. Particularly, it's higher quality. Since we now have a bigger operation, we can measure quality in ways we didn't before: How quickly do I get a message to a customer? How often do I do it? Do I actually get it to them? That doesn't have much glamour, but it ends up having a happy, sort of emotional, result for the customer: She got what she wanted when she asked for it.

Does every brand go through you before contacting customers?

It's now a standard process.

How hands-on are you with each brand?

We do common programs where there is no brand, and we do brand programs. When a brand needs to do something that involves answering a phone or mailing or doing some customer data work, they do it now off our common program. They still get a unique result, since the Cadillac stuff looks like Cadillac says it should, but there's no reason to build yet one more database or one more mail house or call center. We commonized the back end for cost efficiency and quality reasons.

One big thing is common fulfillment. That's where a customer asks about products from more than one division, and about 40 percent of our customers do. We didn't even know how to measure that before.

How do you help Pontiac, for example, figure out where to send its direct mailing for the Bonneville?

There's a Pontiac brand relationship manager (or BRM) on my staff who reports to Pontiac. Each division has a BRM; Chevy has two. Another group works for me where we have some statistics folks who go in and look at the data and model out people that are likely to buy or not likely to buy. Between the brand manager's willingness to fund it and the BRM's ability to get the list together out of what we know about the data, they'll come up with the people to mail to.

How long did it take to develop the database?

The first cut took about a year, and it's the database we've been using since December 1998. We started immediately then on the redo, and we delivered that in June 2001, which includes all GM products and customer demographics we know about. It probably will never stop because the database is always dirty. That's why I have statisticians working for me. A marketing person wouldn't necessarily be able to look at a data set and say whether it's valid for a particular purpose.

Why did it take so long? Was it because each division had its own database?

Some divisions had very elaborate, well-developed databases. Buick had an excellent one. Other divisions didn't have much, or what they had was in an ad agency someplace, ultimately aimed at a program. The trouble was the customer may remember you mailed her a brochure, but you don't because a year from now you have no record. Our data is persistent and central, so I have a picture of you, and not only do I have what products you bought appended to you, I also have which treatments you've been subjected to by us.

How often do you work directly with dealers? Does the conflict of customer ownership come into play?

As long as we do what we say we're doing, there's not much conflict. I don't tell consumers what car to buy. I say, "What do you want to buy?", and I take them where they want to go. The dealer you go to is the one the customer names, which happens about 50 percent of the time. If customers don't name a dealer, we'll send them to their last selling dealer, if there is one for that customer. If you don't know anything, you send them to the three or so nearest dealers.

How many leads have you delivered to dealers during the past six months?

We're running at about 2.5 million a year. A lead is five things: It's customer instigated; it has a name; it has an address; the product of interest; and the intended purchase horizon.

Where do you get your leads?

About 45 percent of my leads now come into a divisional Web site. That's where a person fills out a form because she wants a brochure. And about 40 percent of the leads I get every year are people that wrote something to me, usually a BRC (business reply card). We now have a standard BRC. At the bottom, it says, "Is there anything else I can get you?" Also, we code the thing so we know from which form we got which names, which programs work, which magazines are most effective. The rest of the contacts are mostly phone calls, kiosks in malls, auto shows.

Do you buy address lists?

Not very much, anymore. We used to buy many times from many sources. Now we buy a load from Polk (R.L. Polk & Co.) a couple of times a year, and that's to update registration data.

Who handles the mailings?

Some are done through ad agencies. Before, it was all done through agencies. Forty percent of the mail now is coming out of one fulfillment house, which is run by me. There may be more than one party doing the mailing in the future, but they'll all be using the same process.

Do you work with CJ Fraleigh (GM's executive director of corporate advertising and marketing)?

He doesn't do much in direct, and I don't do much on corporate marketing. We cooperate when he has the Eventworks people out in the field and when we're trying to support a car show or something. We both work for (John) Middlebrook (GM's general manager of vehicle brand marketing and corporate advertising).

What is your greatest challenge?

The challenge now is how to redirect efforts from mass (marketing) to direct. You hate not to spend that $10 million pushing ads for your car and to trust somebody to say, "Well, we can get the same number of cars sold for $1.5 million if you do it right and you do it direct." That's hard to do. As we publish the results of our programs, the marketing people are taking them and adjusting their next program. People are hungry for metrics.

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