ManagementSpeak: Is there a way to improve the financials on this project?

Translation: Fraud or repealing the laws of economics are not necessarily off the table.

Thanks to Tom Reid, accurately translating “improve” is on the table.

CRM is an old story. Digital is the hot new topic. Digital without CRM? Can’t happen.

Or else it easily can. Both words have been tortured in ways that violate seven of the ten commandments and most of the Geneva Conventions, so a lot depends on your definitions.

Here, for example, is McKinsey’s definition of Digital: “… digital should be seen less as a thing and more a way of doing things. To help make this definition more concrete, we’ve broken it down into three attributes: creating value at the new frontiers of the business world, creating value in the processes that execute a vision of customer experiences, and building foundational capabilities that support the entire structure.”

To help you through this round of buzzword bingo, what I think McKinsey is saying is that Digital means:

1. Offering new products and services that weren’t possible before.

2. Making sure you don’t treat customers like dirt.

3. Building all this into the business instead of stopping with a flashy proof of concept.

Which I think means running businesses the way they should have been run all along, if it hadn’t been for consultancies like McKinsey that relentlessly promoted efficiency and cost-cutting as the sin qua non of business management until Digital came along.

But at least, with Digital, there’s an excuse: Its actual, adjectival meaning … pertaining to discrete numbers … has nothing at all to do with business strategy. No wonder it’s a head scratcher.

CRM, in contrast, has a plain, clear meaning: “Customer Relationship Management.” If that still isn’t clear enough, it means paying attention to how your company manages the relationships it has with its customers.

And yet, in the world of buzzword bingo, “CRM” has four, quite distinct meanings, only two of which fit:

1. System implementation: We need a system of record for customer data, so we’re buying a system and need to integrate it into the rest of our applications portfolio.

2. Business integration: Now that we’ve installed and integrated our CRM system, we need to make it support our sales, marketing, and customer service departments.

3. Business optimization: Wait wait wait wait wait … you mean, our new system can do things our old patchwork collection of ad hoc databases and spreadsheets couldn’t do? Let’s figure out how we can use the new system to actually improve how we interact with our customers.

4. Customer relationship management: We want to be like the Chicago Cubs, who aren’t selling any more tickets this year than any other during the more than a century they defined “loser” in the world of baseball. Why? Because they’ve always sold out every game, because everyone on the north side of Chicago is, deep down inside, a bleacher bum.

It isn’t that I’m against having a system of record. It’s that having a system of record for customer data has little to do with managing customer relationships.

For that matter, I’m also not against configuring software to support how you want to do business. It’s that if you start with how you do business today, you’re ignoring a central reality of old, tired, patchwork systems: The business processes that depend on them will include lots and lots of pretzel logic that’s there only to work around system limitations. “Embrace your inner pretzel” just isn’t much of a rallying cry.

The Cubs know how to manage customer relationships, and in fact they’re the archetype, followed closely by Harley Davidson.

Companies that successfully manage customer relationships establish a sense of affinity between their customers and themselves. In retail businesses, renamed “B2C” so as to further damage the English language, this is a difficult but sometimes achievable and highly profitable goal. Its essence: Customers feel like they’re members of an exclusive club. They’re the cognoscenti, unlike those south-siders who just don’t understand what real baseball is about.

Establishing a sense of affinity is even more difficult in business-to-business settings. There are, of course, golfing events and such, but they’re more along the lines of soft bribery than affinity building.

Which isn’t an ethical complaint: Frequent Flier and similar so-called loyalty programs serve the same purpose. They offer a tangible reward for repeat business.

Quid pro quo is just as valid a model for defining customer relationships as member of an exclusive club.

What matters isn’t how you define your customer relationship model. It’s that you design it.

The software is just a way to help put your design into practice.