Breaking the Tech Terminology Barrier’s Dreamforce event is now 10 years old, and it’s reached the stage where it draws a true sample of the Salesforce ecosystem. Of course, there are plenty of Salesforce personnel and vendors whose products work with Salesforce, but there is an increasing number of real customers.

For me, one of the really exciting things is how many of these customers come from segments other than technology. Very naturally, the people in high-tech know where to look for technology solutions to their problems — so of course, they understand the acronyms and are familiar with the culture of technology. However, when people from other, more “traditional” industries start showing up, it’s a good indication of how far the concept of CRM has penetrated the consciousness of businesspeople everywhere.

It’s taken a long time, though — and even though the acronym “CRM” may be familiar to those at Dreamforce, it’s still alien to most people. If CRM’s still a mystery to many, just think about how the terminology surrounding other related technologies must baffle potential customers.

Talking to two CEOs of partner relationship management (PRM) vendors at Dreamforce yesterday — Erich Flynn of Treehouse Interactive and Mike Morgan of RelayWare — helped put this into stark relief. To develop effective applications, vendors need to speak the language of technology, and the shorthand they use makes perfect sense to them when it comes time to take the technology to market. However, in the case of PRM, the terminology gets in the way of reaching a wider audience.

The Blank Stare Syndrome

“‘Partner’ is an IT-centric term that our technology customers understand and have used for a long time,” said Morgan. “But other potential customers in other fields that sell through sales channels don’t use ‘partner’ to describe people in those channels — they use ‘distributor,’ or ‘sales agents,’ or ‘installers,’ or ‘dealers’ or some other term native to their industry. So it’s quite natural that they would see the term ‘PRM’ as just another impenetrable acronym.”

Flynn has experienced similar issues.

“Our existing customers often ask if they can use our solution for other parts of the channel they don’t immediately associate with the term ‘partner,'” he said. “It’s a huge issue of definitions.”

If a vendor or an entire industry segment has a different definition of a technology than its intended customers, that disconnect can cost the customers millions in potential savings and can cost the vendors their businesses.

This isn’t just a problem for PRM. There are other technologies that orbit CRM — the terms “performance management,” “cloud computing,” and even “social CRM” are often met with blank stares when you speak to business people, especially those in small business.

Start at the Very Beginning

A small amount of the responsibility for this is on these potential customers, because they haven’t yet done the research to understand the solutions to their problems.

However, “when they sit down to do that research, they are not googling ‘PRM,'” noted Morgan. “They’re searching with the terms associated with their individual problems. As a result, they often end up buying software that’s not right for the job and create a new silo within the organization.”

Thus, the balance of the responsibility falls on the vendors, said Morgan. “It really is up to us to step back and do a better job of connecting our customers’ problems and needs with a solution.”

Instead of expecting customers from across a wide spectrum of industries to understand your language, he suggested, technology vendors need to use the languages of their customers’ industries to explain how their technology can solve customer problems.

RelayWare and Treehouse Interactive are great companies, but they have both recognized the fact that they have reached a “terminology barrier” that’s keeping PRM from reaching a broader audience.

If you’re a vendor, regardless of what customer technology you work in, it’s a good idea to pause every so often and evaluate whether you’re speaking your language or your customers’ language in making your case to them.

If you’re a customer, it’s a great idea to stop vendors when they start talking in terms you don’t understand and ask them to use language that makes sense to you. Customer communication is at the heart of CRM and the technologies associated with it, and that communication needs to be effective from the very start.

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.

1 Comment

  • I don’t think that it helps anyone’s cause when certain buzzwords, such as sCRM, are hijacked by businesses offering other products or and co-opted to boost their sales. That’s the cynical view, but then there’s also the genuine muddying of the definition brought on naturally by technological convergence.

    When sCRM was first coined there wasn’t a product currently performing the function, but there was a fair idea of how one might develop. Now, sCRM has expanded and enveloped every business 2.0 technology and/or concept (and a few more) to become something so vast, that it’s very difficult to explain it in boilerplate language to a ‘layman’. The danger here is that, in a bid to mention all, people become too macro in their explanation of it, to the detriment of the concise, practical uses.

    The tragedy being, that this would lead to customers with a real need for the product, being turned off by the vast paradigm-shifting (see: expensive integration project garnering) it’s perceived to represent. The article correctly points out that it’s the duty of vendors to better define these concepts and products to their customers, for the sake of everyone involved.

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