Whether you’re a user or whether you purposely ducked the invitations to join, you’ve probably discovered that Google+ is all but inescapable as a topic of conversation.
Responses run the gamut from rejection to an all-in embrace of Google’s new social media platform; users are trying to figure out the best ways to use it, pundits are trying to figure out what kind of dent it could put in Facebook and Twitter, and skeptics are pointing out the areas where it still needs to develop and grow in order to be really relevant.
Google+ is less than a month into its public beta test; Google is effectively trying to accelerate the adoption phase and anoint Google+ as a member of the social media pantheon. Money and muscle are helpful to ascend to that level, but you have to win over users in order to achieve the community size you need.
Social CRM: Are We There Yet?
For the social CRM world, whether Google+ succeeds or fails, it offers a chance to ponder what happens when the social landscape changes. It’s never enough to simply build connections to the big players. After all, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook were all in their infancy five years ago, so whatever the next big player will be may very well still be in its infancy.
Unless a CRM vendor plans on guessing which new platforms will survive, thrive and be significant to a large number of users, that vendor will need to be in a reactive mode. In the competitive CRM space, that ought to be somewhat worrying.
Here’s why: Even with the emergence of some dominant players in social media — Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube — there’s still no real social CRM product available from any one vendor. Some solutions nudge up against social CRM — RightNow’s social media-enabled service features are an example, as is Salesforce.com’s Chatter feature and SugarCRM’s activity streams. Each is a manifestation of the need for CRM to get more social — but each gets only part of the way there.
That’s because CRM is still seen at its elemental level as an IT function, and data in social media is still seen just as data — as in, data to be extracted, processed, filed and used at a later date. It’s very easy to remove data from the conversation, and thus the context; doing so minimizes the value of the data and represents a missed opportunity.
While the data-extraction aspect mimics the original process of CRM — and is thus easy to understand in an IT context — there’s much more to social than data mining from a new source.
“Social” implies a real conversation — not just one in which a business eavesdrops on customers, but one in which the business engages in conversations. But engaging customers is not something you can automate easily — and customers can quickly spot an automated response.
You must find the conversations, steer them toward the right people in your business to participate in them, and aspire toward satisfying the customer first — while also salting away important data for future sales and service efforts.
Go With the Flow
I envision a CRM system with a social aspect that includes sentiment monitoring and keyword monitoring of certain sites a business’ customers frequently use — not all social sites, but the right ones. That means that when a new social media site like Google+ comes along, or when an older one falls out of favor, businesses need to assess the value of including them in their social CRM mix.
Once that decision is made, the social media channel needs to be incorporated into the roster of sites being tracked and monitored.
For a CRM solution to do that, it needs to be open and extensible, because that mix will be constantly changing, and it will be different from business to business — even within vertical market segments.
No vendor can predict that mix, nor can it economically provide connections to everything that’s out there — but it can be designed to be open, simple for the end user or a third-party consultant to customize, and easy to integrate with the APIs from different social media sources. A rigid, closed approach will fail.
Then, the system’s monitoring capabilities must spot opportunities for the business to engage in conversations on those targeted sites. This is where the notification and hand-off to a human must take place — although the CRM system must remain engaged in what that person is doing.
The human’s role will be to shoot for customer satisfaction, build customer knowledge, and boost the brand of the business; the technology can then collect data as a useful by-product of what the human’s trying to do.
The technology also needs to enable businesses to begin conversations — sometimes to build brand, sometimes to broadcast service or sales offers, but often as a way to generate conversations that lead to insight. Again, the human element will be critical — it will be people inside the business who understand what insight they need and the way questions should be phrased to stimulate the conversation.
This will represent a real “social CRM” application, not just a previous-generation CRM system with some social-ish features sprinkled through it. I don’t think we’re that far away from this vision, either — although it will take some thinking, some work by the CRM vendor community, and the commitment of some important resources by companies to make it happen.
Just as Google has recognized it can’t stay static and needs to evolve social media, as it’s trying to do with Google+, CRM vendors need to evolve the way they work, too. These two evolutions — social media and social CRM — will proceed hand in hand, and the trick for both will be to avoid racing ahead faster than users can keep up.