CRM, Energy, Disruptions and Opportunities

I am sitting on a train heading to New York from Boston for a CRM conference. Not driving, not flying — I prefer the train for this trip for a bunch of reasons. Rail brought us traveling troubadours like Woody Guthrie, circuses and baseball, and it helped define a job type: the traveling salesperson. I am riding today with the knowledge that this mode of travel is going to again become the standard for business travel in the years ahead.

How is it? Well, not bad on balance, but some infrastructure improvements are needed. It’s too bad we have not taken better care of the rail network in this part of the world. The roadbed is not smooth in places for typing and it is certainly not what’s needed to support the high speeds you get in European or Asian rail travel. Today we will most likely not break 100 miles per hour, and I think 60 is about the best you can expect despite the fact that the train’s name is “Accela,” a synthetic word meant to convey a notion of speed.

Speedy or not, the ride is rough in spots, making writing a challenge, but I note with some satisfaction the many positives of rail travel. I didn’t have to travel into the city to get to the airport, nor did I have to deal with the usual airport hassles like getting through security. On the other end of my trip, the train will stop at Penn Station in Manhattan, and I will walk out to a cab, which will take me to my hotel for a small fee. There is no expensive commute from Laguardia to the city, no traffic, bridge tolls or anything else to mess with. Incredible as it might seem, door-to-door the train beats the plane for speed and convenience. It beats the car, too, without much effort.

The Sustainability Factor

Why is this important to CRM? Well, quite simply, as I have been studying the sustainability issue in CRM over the last few months, it has become increasingly clear that the way we are living and doing business is anything but sustainable. That much has been obvious to many people for a long time; what is interesting for my purposes is that the point in time when everything begins to break down — i.e. become unsustainable — is just around the corner, and that has a major impact on CRM.

Sustainability by definition requires a renewable approach, one that uses a resource at a rate lower than the earth’s ability to renew it. With petroleum, it seemed like you could always call the Saudis or someone else and get them to pump more oil out of the ground, but with renewables, the most you can get is the most you can get. In other words, the need for efficiency will be with us for a long time.

Back to CRM. If transportation is expensive, you might be able to get away with switching to less expensive modes, as in smaller cars and rail, but at some point it will also mean fewer face-to face-meetings. At that point, CRM can potentially add a lot. Front office applications equipped with video conferencing, for example, is a trivial example of what we might resort to.

The same can be said for embedding voice in CRM applications. The conference I am heading to is co-located with SpeechTek, a conference about all things speech-oriented, such as digitizing voice and making use of speech data. Good timing, if you ask me.

A New Definition of Normal

A farther-reaching idea might include video content development — just a matter of time, if you ask me. Think about it. We are visual learners and our work lives are all about learning things — about our customers and their needs as well as learning about ways to do our jobs better. Despite all that, we spend much of our days reading content from the Web, brochures, manuals, reports and more. No one has all the time to read everything required in a job, and no one (save a savant) has the ability to retain it. Wouldn’t it be better if we worked more with video as a CRM tool?

If I am right and the energy card is now being played, there will be any number of disruptions to business, but those disruptions will also be great opportunities for front office (and other) software vendors to make enhancements to their core capabilities that enable the rest of us to get on with life while adjusting to a new definition of normal.

The magic of the marketplace will take care of a lot of this. I am already taking briefings from emerging companies whose technologies might strike you as odd, but in an environment where energy supplies are becoming volatile and expensive, early adopters will see opportunities.

This time, I suspect that early adopters will not be the big, well-heeled companies that we traditionally think of in that role. Smaller companies might feel the energy pinch sooner and harder, and if that happens I think we’ll see energy-saving solutions percolate upward from the grass roots. Come to think of it, that’s the way on-demand technology got going.

If energy prices moderate in the short term, the tendency will be to think that all this talk about energy shortages is overblown. Remember, though, that the mark of an upward trend like this is higher lows — prices might moderate but they never return to where they were a little over a year ago. That means we’ll need to see gas well under $2 — the last real support level — if guys like me are raising a false alarm. Shaving a few cents off of $4 gas prices does not qualify.

Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at [email protected].

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