The Changing Face of CRM

Published
  • April 16 2009, 11:41am EDT

In the business world, the mantra has often been: the more information available, the better. This is especially true when considering customer relationship management effectiveness. But as technological advances have brought more information to our fingertips than ever before, it becomes apparent that the age-old mantra is really only half true - and the sudden fire hose of available information could actually turn into a CRM nightmare if organizations can’t sort and leverage it in a way that brings business value. Just like if a simple Google search returned a million unsorted, unranked results, all of the information in the world regarding your customers and your industry isn’t useful unless there’s a way to control it and apply it as meaningful knowledge. And what constitutes authoritative and expert advice? Just because content shows up in a Google search result doesn’t make the content necessarily reliable or relevant.Unfortunately, the difference between actionable knowledge and information overload is a fine line is proving difficult for today’s organizations to master. According to leading knowledge economy research and advisory firm Basex, an estimated minimum of $900 billion is lost per year in lowered employee productivity and reduced innovation. Despite its heft, this is a fairly conservative number and reflects the loss of 25 percent of the knowledge worker’s day to the problem. The total could be as high as $1 trillion. Too often, organizations accept this information overload as inevitable and their sales force automation or CRM deployments become a repository for contacts, customer interactions and notes -the equivalent of a virtual shoebox.The distressed economy has most of us taking a second look at the way many things are done, and topping the list should be how to break CRM outside of the box. By converting systems that previously could only guide end users to answer the “what to do next” question into systems that can guide on how to do it best, organizations will start to see tangible business value in improving their customer interactions and experience. The face of CRM is changing to make it possible for employees to tap into better information in a more meaningful way — and hopefully marks the end of the productivity struggle with successful information management.

Adding Depth to the Use Case 

One of the elements that is currently revolutionizing the game for CRM is the way that collected data can be distributed within an organization. Employees now have the ability to employ social networking to share knowledge, past experiences and advice. Through connections like chat, uploading user-generated content, wikis and sharing knowledge via RSS feeds and blogs, social networking and Web 2.0 components are opening up new possibilities for getting the information you need, exactly when you need it. The idea behind these collaborative technologies is for subject matter experts to contribute their best practices, advice and tips to the knowledge base so that it can be indexed, searched upon and applied by peer groups across distributed workforces. And while some organizations wrestle with user-generated content and its potential to compound information management problems even further, if leveraged correctly, it can actually have the opposite effect. For example, picture CRM as it has been in the past. A customer named Jim calls with questions on the benefits of upgrading to your latest product version, why he should stay with you as opposed to switching to your competitor; and how this latest product version has functioned in environments similar to his. You may know the answer to the first two, but don’t have all of the necessary details on the third. You make a note of the question, let Jim know you’ll get back to him, and set out on the hunt for the missing information. This may involve asking your manager, tracking down an expert in product management or wading through a vast amount of training material. A traditional CRM search may turn up data on where the latest product version has been implemented, but not guidelines on how it functioned or advice for demonstrating its value in that particular environment to the customer. The information is a mile wide but only an inch deep. And it’s not just a matter of the time involved in searching multiple sources to find potential answers; staff do not know where to start or who to engage, because these resources and experts often reside outside of their organizations. Now picture CRM as it evolves from being a virtual shoebox to an applicable resource. In the same scenario, customer Jim calls. You are able to answer his first two questions, provide additional incentives around a brand new promotional deal on the upgraded version, and search for the answer to the third question while Jim is still engaged on the phone. Your business actually has the ability to meet that request in real time now that today’s CRM offerings are building in search functions to find and rank previously uploaded advice, experiences and other knowledge capabilities with added background and framework. While making small talk with Jim, you can convey the notes posted by a colleague on the implementation of the product in an environment similar to Jim’s: it functioned extremely well in situation X, but had slight problems in the area of Y. The amount of total information available might be even more to access than before, but with additional context capabilities, it’s now just as deep as it is wide. Most importantly, content and information can be indexed so only the relevant information is delivered as opposed to an entire document. For example, think of product training material produced as a sales tool for the field. Rather than paging through three-ring binders or an electronic version of the materials, your search results would publish answers embedded within the product training manual. This approach not only addresses the business issue of information overload, it also enables organizations to transform their long-form content into assets that provide answers on-demand. For almost every organization, the most important asset is its people. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the personal interactions between customer and staffer, and the CRM knowledge that results. The technology is now catching up, and providing the ability to connect and empower the most important links a company has - its workers and cutomers. 

Putting the Power in the Right Hands 

Of course, this brings with it new areas of difficulty for effective information management, especially where governance, compliance and security are concerned. Social networking is often viewed with apprehension and uncertainty from corporate higher-ups due to business rules that must be enforced, regulatory requirements and privacy concerns. This cuts across the grain and core beliefs of traditional social networking offerings. However, CRM solutions are beginning to address these issues by incorporating security, business rules and audit trailing as part of their knowledge dissemination and collaboration strategies. The ability to filter, review and approve content adds necessary checks and balances to make sure CRM information is used to benefit, rather than potentially harm, the entire company. 

Passing it Across - and Down - the Chain

Beyond the benefits of sharing information laterally across company agents, the advantages of this approach to CRM can become even more apparent when applied to helping ramp up new employees quickly. When you hire new members of the company, you can give them the ability to access every important experience and knowledge expertise that anyone in the company has ever had - and even the knowledge passed down from people who are no longer with the organization. It levels the playing field and provides years of experience and insight to a worker right off the bat. 

Getting People on Board

Of course, the obvious question that comes to mind is, “Why would I, as a valued worker, spend time sharing my knowledge (and effectively, my competitive advantage) with every other person in the company?” CRM adoption has often faced challenges in the past because employees either find it an inconvenient use of their time or a flat-out threat to their individual business value. Especially in times of economic disruption, workers are tempted to play their experience cards very close to the vest. But as part of the changing face of CRM, this setback is gaining reason to evolve, as well. Technology advances are offering the ability to incentivize CRM shared usage through better tracking of the new sales, improved business and customer retentions that result. Suddenly, sharing what you know becomes the most attractive option available: the more links back to your know-how, the better positioned you are as a valuable team player. And the more often your experience directly contributes to helping the business, the bigger percentage of payout you may see. 

Empowering the Road Warrior

Finally, many organizations enhance their customer relationships by spending time with them in face-to-face formal meetings or over a cup of coffee. And in most cases, this takes staffers away from the wealth of knowledge available at the click of a mouse. As a result, one of the most important evolutions for CRM to be successful today is its ability to be accessed from the road. When looking to take CRM to the next level for your organization, an important thing to consider is whether an application can provide the same benefit from a mobile device as it would from a computer platform. 

Where CRM is Headed Next

CRM is evolving to tackle issues of adoption setbacks, provide incentives, meet compliance and regulatory standards, be accessible from the road, and give customers an overall better experience. This demonstrates important progress, but our current economy will put CRM business strategies to the truest test - whether it really improves effectiveness. In other words, can my CRM system help me improve sales effectiveness? These business challenges have already had a trickle-down effect on CRM vendors. I’m sure you have seen marketing materials or messaging on vendors’ web sites that talk about social CRM, CRM mashups and the new face of CRM. Business leaders at large and small companies alike view CRM vendors as being a mile wide and an inch deep with respect to driving sales and service effectiveness. To truly address the business challenge, CRM vendors have a lot of ground to cover in terms of augmenting their platforms to enable enterprise collaboration, social networking and knowledge management. The CRM vendors who reach this milestone will have the ability to articulate tangible business value propositions to their clients and prospects. Some vendors will take the path of building their own capabilities, and other CRM vendors may choose to embed or acquire best-in-class products from other companies. Under either scenario, we can be assured that the face of CRM continues to evolve as we strive to achieve tangible business value.

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