Customer Centricity vs. the Front-Office/Back-Office Fallacy

The old cliche is that CRM is supposed to give you a 360-degree view of your customers. I debate that — I think it gives, at best, a couple of overlapping 270-degree views, and 30 degrees will always be hidden.

However, that’s all geometric digression. My real point is this: Having a 360-degree view of your customers isn’t worth a hill of beans unless you can couple that with a 360-degree view of your own organization. In my experience, there’s often a lot less internal visibility than companies are willing to own up to.

I was thinking about this while pondering the idea of front-office vs. back-office solutions. The front-office stuff is CRM, SFA, marketing and other customer-facing applications and disciplines — really, the glamour applications in any business software ecosystem.

Backing all this up is poor old ERP, those dowdy applications that everybody has to have to make their companies trudge along: manufacturing, warehousing, human resources, finance, order processing and so on. They’re actually very important applications, but they are not bright and shiny to most people.

The front-office stuff is used by the sales team and the marketing department — often viewed as different species from the rest of the office — and by those poor so-and-so’s down the hallway in customer service. Everyone else at the company — the users of the back-office applications, the people who actually make, package and deliver the products and services the company delivers to customers — does the real work. Just ask them. They’ll tell you.

This is the scenario that caused my wife to stop watching “The Office.” “This isn’t a comedy — it’s a documentary,” she said.

Don’t Leave Them Hanging

Now, superimpose the idea of a customer-centric organization over this front-office/back-office thinking. It should become immediately apparent that this is a false dichotomy: Without the work being done to create good products and services, all the great customer relationship building goes for naught. Without good sales, marketing and customer support efforts, those well-made products and crackerjack services will never reach customers.

When CRM, the discipline — as opposed to CRM, the technology — is brought into a company, it can’t stop with its traditional sales, marketing and service clientele. The idea has to permeate the entire organization. That idea is that the customer comes first, and part of being able to put the customer first is to have a thorough understanding of what your company can deliver.

In my opinion, that underpinning should cause the old front-office/back-office split to evaporate. There will be times when it’s crucial that sales understands what’s going on in manufacturing or in HR in order to honestly report to customers on a time frame for orders or how quickly a service team can be deployed.

Similarly, without reasonable forecasts from sales and marketing, the planning behind the scenes to meet demand simply can’t be done in a coherent way — and that could mean customers who depend on you are left hanging out to dry.

Want to Bet?

Building a functional, integrated ecosystem is not easy, and almost no organizations have done it from the ground up. New applications are usually brought in when something in the business processes has broken, which can lead to a Rube Goldberg-like set of integrations.

When ERP made its big splash in the ’90s, it came as the result of a realization that a set of dislocated processes and applications were costing organizations significant revenue, and that rationalizing those processes and applications could boost efficiency and profit.

We’re nearing a point where another of these rationalizations is going to take place as companies react to the new social customer and begin to grasp the depth of change the new customer will require of them. That’s going to require a new level of transparency into the business for the customer — a level of transparency and self-awareness the business needs to have, too.

So, the customer is changing, and business needs to change, too. Are you ready to make those deep changes — front-office, back-office, whole-office — or are you willing to bet your business that things are fine the way they are today?

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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