The purpose of this article is to define and explore customer relationship management (CRM) beyond the technology. CRM is more than a universal acronym for a billion dollar category of enterprise software. In fact, the business processes behind customer relationship management are the backbone of modern customer-centric marketing. These processes existed long before CRM took over business terminology to merely indicate another tool you needed to master to keep up with the customer.
In this article, you’ll learn about CRM strategy and philosophy from professionals who leverage these principles to succeed in the customer-centric economy. In 2017, technology empowers the digital customer relationship; this fact requires some discussion of CRM technology’s modern features and trends. However, CRM matters because of the focus on relationship, and customer relationship technology is only as good as the business relationship it helps foster. Navigate directly to topics such as customer relationship management strategy, examples on how to streamline sales processes leveraging CRM tools, and unique insight on the customer relationship paradox and overcoming CRM challenges using the navigation guide on this page.
What Does CRM Stand For?
At its core, CRM is a business philosophy and a type of software technology. Before the spreadsheet or the cloud, customer relationship management was a business philosophy. In practice, CRM supports critical business processes involving customer communication designed to gain, develop, and manage a relationship. In conversation, someone using the term CRM is likely referring to the software tool operating to aid their business in some aspect of customer management. In that case, CRM is effective as a type of business infrastructure and as a business strategy to maximize customer interactions.
Customer Relationship Management Software
According to Gartner’s IT Glossary, customer relationship management is “a business strategy that optimizes revenue and profitability while promoting customer satisfaction and loyalty. CRM technologies enable strategy, and identify and manage customer relationships, in person or virtually. CRM software provides functionality to companies in four segments: sales, marketing, customer service, and digital commerce.” Organizations that understand that a strong business philosophy starts and ends with the customer look to technology for competitive advantages and solutions. CRM leads the enterprise software categories in projected growth for 2017, which Gartner estimates to reach $37 billion.
In The CRM Handbook: A Business Guide to Customer Relationship Management, author Jill Dyché emphasizes that CRM is more than managing customer behavior and monitoring customers with technology. She defines CRM as follows:
“Customer relationship management is the infrastructure that enables the delineation of and increase in customer value, and the correct means by which to motivate valuable customers to remain loyal — indeed, to buy again.”
As “infrastructure,” CRM technology serves as the database to support the business process. The primary function of CRM technology is converting customer data into actionable insights for management, sales, marketing, and customer service. It enables companies to simplify the new complexities of doing business with increasingly diverse and growing populations distracted by the noise of 21st-century communications. According to Dyché, the purpose of CRM technology is to serve as a communication tool “to differentiate customer treatment according to individual preferences.” It’s not what CRM stands for then, as much as what it stands up for — the customer.
The “R” in CRM Matters - Improving Customer Experiences Through the Relationship
“There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company, from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”
-Sam Walton, Founder, Walmart and Sam’s Club.
“CRM, is all about the relationship,” says Casey Jacox, President, Client Strategy & Partnerships at Kforce. “At Kforce, our industry specific organizational approach allows deeper customer relationships rooted in where the customer finds value.”Kforce is a staffing and solutions firm providing staff augmentation and professional services in Technology & Finance industries. Jacox credits his rise (from perennial top sales producer to his current leadership position in the company) to winning the relationship with his clients. An advocate of the win the relationship, not the deal philosophy, Jacox began writing about his passion for connecting with his customers beyond the transactional nature of the buyer/seller relationship on his website. His professional philosophy and storytelling consistently demonstrate the most important aspect of customer relationship management.
He writes: “You have to be genuinely interested in seeing others succeed. I am not saying that you can’t have aggressive goals and be competitive because that is exactly the way I am wired. You just need to remember that you will NEVER reach those goals if you can’t build strong relationships and ensure that is the main driver in anything you want to achieve in your life.”
Jacox illustrated the importance of prioritizing your customer’s success with a scenario sales professionals often experience in the customer relationship process, the face-to-face meeting.
“If you sat with [the customer] in their office, you could see the pictures of their kids; perhaps you learned that [the customer’s] son plays lacrosse, a daughter plays soccer and piano, [they] just got back from a family reunion in Yakima. I write it all down. I want to know birthdays — every unique way to differentiate yourself I remember if I document it.”
Smart Customer Relationship Strategy
According to Jill Dyché (author of The CRM Handbook), “treating customers like cattle is the antithesis of CRM, the goal of which is to recognize and treat each customer as an individual.”
The company that knows the “R” in CRM is what matters to the brand and that a business strategy that focuses on delivering value through the relationship will improve business practices and customer relationships. It is true that CRM technology empowers business processes and organizational philosophy for customer relationship management. However, the technology is not the path to excellent customer relationships, the attitude towards the relationship is.
“You have to be working smart. You have to document [customer data]. Customers want to relate to you. People don’t want to feel like a transaction,” says Jacox. “When I have a meeting with a customer, my goal is for them to say ’that’s a great question.’ I will always lead back to proper documentation and being organized for my success. If you don’t document and stay organized you end up talking more than listening.”
Jacox recalls a familiar scenario from mentoring salespeople over the years.
“How did the meeting go?” Jacox asks an associate. “I killed it; I told them everything [about the company’s services]!” Jacox, anticipating this response would then follow-up: “Well, what did you learn? If you did all the talking, you didn’t have good questions, and you didn’t learn.”
This scenario is an example of what Jacox refers to as “Seller Deficit Disorder.” Jacox credits his professional mentor, John Kaplan, for the term and explains the condition’s symptoms in two parts:
- You don’t understand the customer’s business
- You don’t listen to the customer
“When I was young in my career, and I was a transactional-based salesperson I failed, and [I remember] how that felt and how I was judged [...],” recalls Jacox. “On the opposite side, when I used CRM [technology] to my benefit and documented intensely and focused on what was most important I ended up winning large deals. I know for a fact the biggest reason why I’ve been successful at Kforce is I am a CRM psycho.” Jacox uses the term to describe the intensity and discipline he credits for leveraging CRM processes and technology to remember every customer interaction. “I want to ensure that I manage myself and follow up on those interactions,” he says.
What Is the CRM Process?
Customer relationship management processes are the specific activities used to identify, acquire, build, and retain customer relationships that align with the business. CRM business processes are operational, analytical, and require a collaborative effort to keep the business aligned with customers and various stakeholders (suppliers, distributors, investors). Examples of CRM processes are categorized as follows:
- CRM Discovery: Activities that target customers based on business capabilities and goals and the customer’s unique needs.
- CRM Support: Direct customer contact and support for the business activity that solves a customer’s problem or satisfies their unique needs.
- CRM Analysis: Activities such as collecting, sorting, and optimizing customer knowledge in the form of data converted to actionable CRM business metrics.
Tim Irey is the Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Bargreen Ellingson, a foodservice equipment and supplies dealer. The company depends on more than 100 outside sales representatives in 21 US branches to generate revenue ($255 million in 2016). For Irey’s sales team, the face-to-face relationship with customers in the foodservice industry is the foundation of success for the privately owned family business established in 1960.
Irey started as a salesperson with the company more than 20 years ago. The outside sales staff and their daily interactions with customers in the field, supported by inside customer service employees and marketing leadership, is the foundation for their customer relationship strategy. CRM technology helps drive communication and customer satisfaction at Bargreen Ellingson by empowering the sales team with real-time data in the field to enhance efficiency and effectiveness.
“The relationship in ‘CRM’ means meeting the customer at whatever level they want,” says Irey, “[and] at the same time pushing the envelope towards the relationship the sales staff wants. I think it is very individual. [The relationship] I may have with a customer, someone else may not have.”
Irey also addresses how generational differences between salesperson and client can pose challenges. “Customer relationships drive a fair amount [of our business]. The relationship will never go away in sales. But demographically speaking, it is ebbing and flowing,” says Irey. “If I’m a Gen-X [salesperson] building a B2B relationship with a Millennial, that is more challenging than Gen-X to Gen-X. There is definitely a gap in generations with communication.”
CRM Processes Help Manage The Noise
Irey suggests the integration of CRM technology is not directly responsible for relationship management processes or strategy. “It’s more about [using] the data required [to] manage the relationship,” he says. “We wanted our [sales] staff to have direct access to data that benefits them. It is incredibly valuable to see data like trends on pricing.”
The data is not always positive, but this empowers change and adaptation that keeps the company in the top tier of competitors in the foodservice industry. “The biggest metric is where are we losing sales,” says Irey. “If I’m a salesperson in a geographic market, I can look at where my sales vs. the gaps are. You can isolate inventory to see where you may have lost business or where you are trending down in product sales.” Leadership uses this data for targeting campaigns.
Using this intelligence, the salesperson can intelligently improve the customer relationship, become a resource, and align with business goals simultaneously. Irey uses an example of a top performer who consistently leads the company in profit margin. By opening up to the data and trends displayed through CRM technology, the salesperson was able to modify their pricing structure to increase overall gross sales with minimal profit margin erosion.
Managing the margins and offering the best product for a variety of customers at different levels of profitability and operating efficiency is important to Bargreen Ellingson’s customer relationship management strategy. Irey indicates that leveraging CRM technology to streamline sales processes and align customer relationship management with business goals starts with internal communication.
“The noise component is greater now than ever before. It is starting to consume more of the pieces of communication,” says Irey. “[With] 100 outside sales people to communicate important topics [with], the competition for that communication space is more and more challenging. Nobody is sitting on the porch thinking ‘gosh, what am I going to do for the next hour?’”
“If we’re already competing with social media and our own personal and work-life time, how do we get the sales team to dig in and see the information we want them to see?” says Irey.
Irey’s sales team at Bargreen Ellingson uses mobile CRM technology focused on customer purchase history and inventory data to align customer satisfaction and loyalty with profitability goals. This communication, in the form of data exchanged, plays a vital role in enhancing customer relationship processes for his team. Each salesperson has real time access to data in the field they use - this enables them to streamline product orders and manage pricing in a highly-competitive industry that supports the historically budget-conscious restaurant and hospitality industry. The CRM technology allows the user to store data offline to prepare for a meeting and to protect against offline challenges.
In addition to leveraging mobile CRM technology, Irey uses an internal messaging application to communicate with his team via text messages. The information shared on this platform, combined with data stored in CRM technology, equips the salesperson in the field with information to drive specific actions that impact business goals.
“It is one more attempt to try and communicate with our staff quickly, efficiently, effectively, and in little bite-sized pieces,” says Irey. “Because their job isn’t to listen to our communications, their job is to listen to the customer. Meeting the customer where they want to meet and how they want to communicate is a challenge in and of itself.”
This leadership process is an indirect form of managing the customer relationship process. Time saved by his sales team is time gained by the customer in the field and (not unlike other industries but arguably more amplified) time in the foodservice industry is the most valuable commodity. In customer relationship management, efficiency is a key differentiator and in this example, is a result of leveraging technology.
Streamline Sales Performance With CRM Strategy and Technology
“We believe it is more important than ever to have a salesperson empowered to work beyond the physical task of placing orders and managing manual tasks vs. serving as a consultant that can talk to [customers] about what’s important,” says Irey. Technology - like CRM software and integrated database systems - that make online ordering possible at any time of day frees his sales team to talk about what they want to.
Here are some examples of how Bargreen Ellingson empowers their most valuable asset — the sales team — with a customer relationship management strategy that leverages CRM technology to involve employees and align their actions with business goals:
- Targeted profitable customers: Bargreen Ellingson uses CRM technology and sales training to promote relationships with customers that value their unique product mix. Providing real-time data on inventory availability and up-to-date pricing allows their foodservice customers to manage aggressive budgets that directly impact their menu pricing. The ability to quote orders, look up data on previous purchases, and view outstanding account receivable information promotes honest relationships with loyal customers who work hard to create value for their business and appreciate transparent interactions between buyer and seller.
- Responsiveness: To build their business, a successful sales organization requires maximum efficiency and effectiveness from the tools they use. Customers demand up-to-date information on product availability and order status. Bargreen Ellingson uses CRM technology in the field to improve customer service by keeping customers informed. Responding quickly with actionable data is a critical component of the customer relationship process and promotes customer satisfaction.
- Performance management tool: Top performers are critical to all organizations, especially those dependent on direct sales employees to drive profitability and growth. CRM technology provides Bargreen Ellingson with the data needed to manage performance and provide actionable information on products and customers in a particular geographic territory. If a salesperson is underperforming or missing opportunities that their peers leverage to improve customer satisfaction and profitability, the customer relationship often suffers, too. Motivated sales teams are most effective in driving business goals, and CRM technology used to promote success can directly improve customer relationship processes.
- Gamification: Irey uses the data he collects from CRM to motivate suppliers into participating in contests for his sales team. In one example, he identified areas of opportunity with two vendors who shared an interest in growing their business with Bargreen Ellingson. By displaying the capability to manage the data with CRM technology and to report on specific metrics assigned to the new product line, Irey coordinated a sales contest with the suppliers, who agreed to pay bonus commissions to the sales team for marketing and distributing the products. The product line grew more than 35 percent, and they received a positive response from customers who were introduced to a new product line previously unavailable to them.
- Individualized campaigns: Bargreen Ellingson does not leverage direct digital marketing campaigns traditionally associated with modern CRM technology (such as marketing automation, email marketing campaigns, or digital advertising). Instead, the marketing campaigns are individualized and driven by the direct relationships between salesperson, customer service representatives, management, and the customer. Targeted campaigns might focus on specific product lines and promotions based on geographic regions or supplier relationships. Or, they can use CRM data to identify missed opportunities and focus campaigns on areas of margin erosion for specific products. For example, equipment installations that overlooked accessories, or modifications that enhance the performance of the product and the customer experience.
Challenges of CRM
“The art of persuasion is paradoxical. The more we attempt to persuade people, the more they tend to resist us. But the more we attempt to understand them and create value for them, the more they tend to persuade themselves.”
The article “Avoid the Four Perils of CRM,” from the Harvard Business Review (HBR), discusses the historical enigma associated with implementing CRM programs and technology. The CRM paradox described in the 2002 article is still relevant for organizations mesmerized by the promise of customer relationship management. As the authors point out, “when it works, CRM allows companies to gather customer data swiftly, identify the most valuable customers over time, and increase customer loyalty by providing customized products and services.” However, when the implementation of CRM fails and customer relationship processes suffer, research from HBR indicates four common pitfalls. Here are the top challenges of CRM, along with ways to overcome them:
- Implementing CRM before creating a customer strategy. Start with a traditional customer acquisition and retention strategy and align customer relationship processes with business goals before implementing new CRM technology.
- Rolling out CRM before changing your organization to match. The most successful CRM implementations happened after an organization focused on internal business processes and systems first (job descriptions, performance measures, compensation systems, training programs, etc.).
- Assuming that more CRM technology is better. Consider experimenting with a hybrid solution that allows stakeholders to integrate low-tech solutions unique to the environment and business goals. Later, add more high-tech technology as needed.
- Stalking, not wooing, customers. The kind of company and the type of customer you serve dictates the market for your products and services, and therefore, who you should attempt to communicate with — not the CRM program. Just because you upgrade technology with the ability to reach more customers or customers from different segments, does not mean you should.
The CRM Paradox
The paradox of persuasion directly relates to managing salespeople and the business processes impacting the customer relationship. Jacox keeps Willingham’s art of persuasion quote accessible and references it often. He explains that while it may seem exploitative in the context of a management philosophy, it actually offers clarification.
“If I’m a sales leader and you [a salesperson] has a specific income goal, you’re going to have to perform [tasks] at a certain level,” he says. “Instead of telling them, you walk them through their goals and guide them to certain activities.”
The philosophy of indirect persuasion to guide a salesperson, or any employee directly involved in the customer relationship process, is an example of avoiding the perils that plague CRM processes. Changing the organizational mindset and aligning business goals with communication strategy helps to avoid some of the challenges that CRM technology brings to the customer relationship process.
In another example, Jacox discusses how customer relationship processes and the overwhelming amount of big data trends in CRM technology sometimes adds unnecessary complexity to the sales cycle. To combat this, he says, “Keep it simple. You can’t manage everyone the same. There are features of CRM [technology] that are great for some but wrong for others. If the top performers are using CRM [technology] differently but performing well, then it doesn’t matter. You have to be flexible around people’s differences and skill level.”
Jacox adds, “You don’t want to overthink the data you’re gathering. There is such a thing as too much data in sales. If you want to have a valuable conversation, are you asking valuable questions? If you try to convince salespeople to document specific data, you’re going to fail. If you can tie it back to an income goal, you can then tie it back to specific CRM metrics that top performers consistently have.”
There is a balance to be found and consequences for failing to communicate the importance of organization and planning. For example, Jacox points to the perils of not planning and the failure to embrace organizational responsibilities that come with using CRM processes.
“What am I supposed to be doing right now? is not a good feeling. Your stress level increases. Whatever I’m supposed to be selling is impacted, and so is my relationship with my internal team,” explains Jacox.
The Competitive Advantage of Customer Relationship Processes
Customer relationship processes, when implemented and supported with CRM technology, can create competitive advantages over companies without a defined customer relationship strategy. To create these advantages, companies align strategic business processes with various communication methods carried out by marketing, sales, and customer service functions. Examples of these strategic relationship processes include:
- Using real-time market research gathered from active customers to drive purchasing decisions
- Integrating mobile CRM technology with enterprise databases, so outside salespeople and inside customer service employees act efficiently and accurately on the client’s behalf
- Configuring CRM technology to provide price manipulation data and estimates for sales teams
- Redirecting digital advertising or integrated marketing activities like direct marketing emails and drip campaigns to manage spend
- Designing promotional copy and graphics for targeted campaigns based on direct customer feedback on products and services
- Identifying qualified leads from marketing funnels and empowering sales teams with actionable data
- Generating accurate sales forecasts that account for trends in customer budgets or gaps in service
Jacox likes to use analogies to communicate ideas. He shares a metaphor with his team about the importance of customer relationship process and planning. The following example highlights the competitive advantages of implementing strategic customer relationship processes that leverage CRM technology.
“Let’s [pretend] we are pilots,” says Jacox. “How many pilots jump in the cockpit and say ok, let’s go [...] take off and see what happens. I don’t want to be on that plane. I want to be on the flight that required a detailed process and a checklist. So when I train [the customer relationship process], I like to ask [the person], ‘Do you like to have a plan?’” Jacox continues the analogy by asking the person to describe the feeling you would experience as a pilot when you don’t have a plan.
“CRM [strategy] comes back to, ‘Should I plan or should I not?’” says Jacox. “CRM best practices is all about planning,” he adds. “I’m more organized. I increase chances of quality meetings or conversations with my customers. I have a specific purpose to my actions. I’m going to have more focus. I’m going to reduce seller deficit disorder. I’m going to understand our customers’ business better and prove I’m listening.”
To drive the point home, Jacox finishes the example with a direct question that relates to all sales professionals. “Do you like stress and anxiety, or would you like to know where your business is coming from in 30/60/90 days, or would you like to guess? I don’t like guessing,” he says. “I like [using] data to drive my decisions. If I wanted to guess, I would ask my 11-year-old son. I would rather just have the answers. CRM [strategy] gives you the answers to the test.”
CRM Evolution: Customer Relationship Management Database To SaaS
Since the dawn of commerce, businesses have measured the customer’s perception of the products and services exchanged, and relied on customer satisfaction to survive. The process for tracking and organizing this feedback has evolved over various stages of innovation in shifting economic periods; the modern CRM methods and infrastructure developed in the 1970s. Collecting customer feedback and gathering data on existing or prospective customers required the use of surveys or face-to-face interviews. The data stored offline in file cabinets served as the original data warehouses.
The 1980s ushered in technology capable of storing and efficiently recalling large volumes of customer data for companies to analyze. The advent of spreadsheets and personal computers (capable of storing and searching lists) helped propel modern CRM software technology. This shift allowed marketers to transform databases into powerful tools for driving business outcomes and redefined customer relationship processes.
According to the article A Brief History of Digital Marketing Technology, Kate and Robert Kestnbaum pioneered the use of electronic databases to push out offline marketing techniques. Database marketers like the Kestnbaum’s created a new form of direct marketing by keeping electronic records of customers, prospects, and contacts. They emphasize customer statistics and generate behavior models from electronic data warehouses filled with customer information.
This personalized communication, or relationship marketing, transformed the existing buyer-seller relationship. Regardless of the use of spreadsheet software and data warehouses, it wasn’t until the 1990s that marketing technology advanced beyond manual CRM processes. The accessibility of business software and personal computers placed the power of large enterprise computing technology on the desk of creative marketers and sales professionals. Access to customer data and rapidly evolving communication technology created the demand for systems that could keep up with new ways of collecting, storing, and communicating customer data.
After the dot-com bubble burst, a new type of CRM software emerged. The behavior of the customer and the buying cycle changed forever when the internet became accessible and affordable for the majority of customers. CRM companies that appeared in the 1990s and managed to hold on through the mid-2000s adapted to a new customer relationship with a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model. Customer behavior and data were now online, and internet users researched products, communicated with other customers online, and made decisions based on a company's online presence and reputation. Goods and services were purchased online without ever speaking with a salesperson or business representative. CRM leaders moved to SaaS models with the emergence of social media, mobile internet, and marketing automation technology. The internet was now the primary channel to communicate with customers, and today’s major CRM companies offer SaaS products that dominate due to the trends of “tech-dependent” customers.
CRM Features and Trends
New features and trends of modern customer relationship management processes and technology cater to the tech-dependent customer and help companies manage the digital noise that their customer is subjected to daily.
SoLoMo is an acronym that stands for the social, location-based, and mobile marketing approach popularized (and enabled) by companies like Google. SoLoMo customer relationship management is an example of the industry-specific, customizable process and technology that operates where the customer prefers to be. By 2016, nearly 3 billion people used mobile devices globally, and the market has grown by 40 percent. The customer-centric economy demands companies find ways to stand out in the market of extensive mobile information, decentralized viral media, and prevalent social networks.
Big data trends (and the economic momentum behind its rise) is a direct product of the need to capture business metrics on customer related data; these metrics are required to implement a successful SoLoMo marketing approach. This data includes location-based purchase habits, mobile device IDs and operating system information, and advertising metrics like social media impressions. Some modern CRM systems provide geographic marketing capabilities (sales leads and contact management options) that are integrated with popular social networks or GPS applications.
Digital marketing automation is big business. Marketing automation is software designed to automate repetitive tasks (email marketing for example) and reduce the human error involved in communicating with customers digitally. This category of software is a $1.65 billion industry and a reported $5.5 billion in acquisitions by large enterprise software behemoths means critical mass is far from realized. The largest area for growth and impact of marketing automation on CRM processes and technology is analytics. SoLoMo CRM is complex, and the data generated with marketing campaigns that leverage SoLoMo strategy is immense.
To optimize CRM in 2017, a tremendous amount of data is sorted and optimized for actionable business metrics. A CRM platform that leverages these business metrics provides actionable customer data. The action lies in CRM processes that use this data to find the customers they value, discover their unique needs, and communicate their value around this information - it is then sorted and optimized for actionable business metrics.
The Cloud-Based SaaS CRM Revolution
With the rise of cloud-based, SaaS CRM, customer relationship management technology entered a new phase of growth, accessibility, and dominance as an enterprise software category. Previous trends like SoLoMo CRM strategy and marketing automation features rely on the shared pool of networks, servers, and applications that define cloud-based computing. The big data generated from these processes are stored in the cloud and called upon using a subscription-based CRM software that is accessed through web browsers and APIs built on cloud platforms.
Cloud-based SaaS CRM generates the business metrics that drive decision making in the modern digital customer relationship. Companies now have more options and can choose their level of flexibility, cost, and convenience when leveraging CRM technology - this helps sort the digital noise that prevents their communication from reaching the customer.
Also, some of the challenges associated with implementing new CRM process and technology is easier to overcome with the reduced barriers to software integration, onboarding and training employees, and the ability to slowly phase in new CRM capabilities over time to properly scale business practices.
Additional CRM features
Despite the attention that new CRM features and trends (like social CRM, CRM marketing automation, and SaaS CRM) receive for enhancing customer relationship capability, traditional CRM capabilities are upgraded by these new developments as well. The CRM features and capacities impacted include:
- Sales Territory Management (social CRM)
- Phone Systems Integration (automation)
- Call Center Management (automation)
- Campaign Management (big data capture)
- Contact Management (automation)
- Lead Management (social CRM/automation)
- List Management (Cloud SaaS/automation)
- Project Management (all)
- Customer Support (social CRM/automation)
- Document Management (automation)
- Email Marketing (automation, Cloud SaaS)
- Impression Tracking (social CRM/Cloud SaaS/automation)
- Web Forms (Cloud SaaS/automation)
- Quotes and Proposals (automation/Cloud SaaS)
- Survey Management (automation/Cloud SaaS)
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