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CRM in a Customer-Empowered World

By Christopher J. Bucholtz
Sep 28, 2012 7:56 AM PT

About five years ago, CRM analyst and author Paul Greenberg set out to develop a definition for social CRM, or CRM 2.0, as some called it at the time. Through his impetus, some crowdsourcing, some crowd-editing and ultimately, I suspect, a degree of fatigue, he arrived at a definition.

CRM in a Customer-Empowered World

It was this: "Social CRM is a business strategy, supported by a technology platform, business rules, workflow, processes and social characteristics, designed to engage the customer in a collaborative conversation in order to provide mutually beneficial value in a trusted and transparent business environment. It's the company's response to the customer's ownership of the conversation."

Yes, I know -- it's not that catchy. But it has a good beat and you can dance to it. And, if you want to distill it to its essence, just grab that last sentence.

It's About the Customer

The customer owns the conversation. Period. You can start the conversation. You can participate in the conversation. But the customer now owns it. And it's up to you to respond properly.

In other words, you no longer control the conversation. This by itself is a tough concept for many businesses to grasp -- they still cling to the notion that they exist in a world where they can broadcast a pre-packaged message out to a customer audience, and the audience will simply receive that message.

It's more complicated today, because the customer can talk back, and talk about you without you being involved. Since the customer has a greater role in conversations, his or her expectations are shifting as well. The customer expects to be able to talk to the businesses he or she buys from. And, as a result, it's increasingly the customer who chooses who in the company he or she talks to.

Some of this "choice" is somewhat random. These days, it's not uncommon for customers to use a search engine to find an email or phone number of someone in the company and fire off a request for help, regardless of who that person may be. It could be the CEO; it could be a guy who works in the warehouse. It may well not be a person whose actual role is to interact with customers or provide answers to customer service issues -- but customers don't care. They only want problems dealt with.

What to Do?

That's a situation that can be addressed in a few ways. First, you can strive to equip every employee with an encyclopedic knowledge of all your customers and all your product information. Sadly, most of us can't hire entire staffs of supergeniuses with photographic memories.

That means two other solutions: one, develop processes to bounce customers to the right people in the organization (which most companies already do today, to wildly varying degrees of success and failure) or two, find a technological solution for this problem.

That suggests that CRM is likely to become a more widespread technology within businesses as the customer asserts greater control over conversations. The other side of expanding customer expectations is the notion that every employee is customer-facing -- regardless of their roles, employees will inevitably interact with customers. Customers don't really care what their roles are. They expect those employees to be able to offer help and answers to their questions, and to do so in a timely and accurate manner. How do you do that without providing those employees with some way of accessing customer records, sales documents and other data typically made available via CRM?

Make the Tools Available

The idea that CRM is for everyone is likely to take root in stages, expanding from traditional CRM users to field personnel, to other non-traditional users. It's also likely to get a boost from mobile CRM technology, making it not just CRM for everyone, but CRM everywhere. Which makes sense -- because your customers are everywhere, and they may contact you through the channel of their choosing (not yours).

Coping with the growing power of the customer requires a shift in thinking about your employees. You can't expext them to hold up their ends of the conversations with customers they will inevitably become involved in if you don't equip them to respond.

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz blogs about CRM at the CRM Outsiders. He has been a technology journalist for 17 years and has immersed himself in the world of CRM since 2006. When he's not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he's wearing his airplane geek hat; he's written three books on World War II aviation.

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