A CRM Lesson From Sesame Street

This Christmas, I was sitting around with the in-laws after the presents were opened, when my father-in-law asked me a question that has probably been nagging him for a long time. “What is it that you do?” he said.

Well, I’m a writer, first off, but what is it that I write about? CRM. Explaining what that acronym is and what it encompasses was pretty tough — not because my father-in-law is dense, but because CRM is a technology and a discipline, an umbrella term that covers a host of areas within business, and a continuously evolving set of ideas that changes as customer behavior changes.

So here’s what I do to try to get the ideas across to people first rubbing up against the idea of CRM: I compare it to Mr. Hooper.

The CRM Guru of Sesame Street

Mr. Hooper, for those of you who didn’t grow up with the first years of “Sesame Street,” was the local grocer. Oscar the Grouch lived outside in a garbage can (did they never pick up the trash on this block?) and Hooper’s General Store was the background for many scenes. After all, what’s better than a barrel of apples for a lesson about counting?

But without realizing it, Mr. Hooper was a great practitioner of the discipline of CRM. He knew all his customers very well, human and Muppet alike, and cultivated a relationship with them that lasted years. This was a situation where the customers truly knew their vendor cared about them.

As a result, he always had the things they needed when they needed them. (I know it’s a television show, and the props department gave him a big assist, but go with me here.) Mr. Hooper paid attention to customer behavior even beyond their purchases to know how to adjust his stock.

He even invited customer participation on product development. Would he have had birdseed milkshakes on the menu had he not listened to Big Bird? Certainly not.

Scale Up the Concept

Now, after I talk about Mr. Hooper, I point out this fact: Mr. Hooper could do this without the need for software because, as a very small business, he saw all his customers face to face. But what if Mr. Hooper started a Web store? Of what if he expanded his grocery store into a chain? You can expand your business — but can you scale up the customer intimacy built through a series of face-to-face transactions? To do that — and at best you can only approximate it with software, and encourage it among your employees — you need CRM, the technology.

That explanation usually connects with people. After that, it gets confusing. The more complex your organization becomes, the more complex the task of maintaining the intimacy and focus on the customer Mr. Hooper embodied becomes. Marketing and customer service need to be part of the CRM mix, but their inclusion can’t take away the emphasis on the customer relationship. Many businesses allow their attention to drift away from an awareness of the customer’s experience as their CRM horizons expand; the customer becomes a set of data and not a person. Mr. Hooper would never allow that.

Trees First, Then Forrest

Surely, Mr. Hooper had specific business problems. He identified them and, through his efforts and the assistance of various furry puppets, he addressed them. Small businesses do the same thing, although without Muppet assistance.

This represents one of the big issues for CRM as it tries to penetrate into small and even medium-sized businesses: The Mr. Hoopers of the world understand their problems, but it never occurs to them that the answer could be found in a thing called “CRM.” That’s not part of their lexicon. That means it’s critical to break down CRM for these audiences in a way that introduces them to the trees first, then the forest. The CRM industry has been leading with the massive (and at times intimidating) totality of what CRM can do instead of the specific problems it can solve.

I think I got the basic ideas across to my father-in-law — but, of course, he was forced to watch “Sesame Street” with his kids and understood the metaphor. There are other metaphors out there for other audiences, but it’s important to realize that not every business that could benefit from CRM already speaks the language of CRM. Like the young viewers of “Sesame Street,” many of them need to learn the ABCs and 1-2-3s of CRM before they can make sense of the lessons that follow, and if we hope to achieve greater market penetration for CRM, we have to help these users by speaking to them in terms they can understand.

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz blogs about CRM at Forecasting Clouds. He has been a technology journalist for 15 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 two books on World War II aviation, and his next two are slated for publication in 2010.

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