Platform Native

The idea of an omnipotent software platform and the evolution of customer science go hand in hand. Customer science is the upshot of my idea that we’re in the process of converting from random acts of CRM in the front office to a more structured, efficient and predictable approach to conducting front-office business. Platforms make customer science possible.

The emphasis on collecting and analyzing customer big data has taken up most of the brain space in the discussion about the front office, but it is only half of the customer science story. The other part is what vendors do with the information they distill from customer data.

They might simply use a fragment of analysis to tell customers that other people almost like them bought product B when they bought product A, but that’s like carpet bombing when a laser-guided approach would work so much better.

A better approach to the new vendor customer relationship implied by customer science is to use the information to first construct journey maps and metrics, and to then put in place business processes mediated by powerful software that leverages all of the new kit that’s come to market over the last few years — in short, the platform.

That includes workflow, social, transaction-oriented analytics, and mobility solutions, for starters. All of these specialized components have to be part of the underlying platform on which the solutions rest. Thus, platform has become a big deal.

One Platform to Support Them All

Platform is arguably much more important than the messaging surrounding it might suggest. The vibe I get from the messaging is that platforms are cool and, well, don’t you want to be cool? That’s early market messaging, the kind of thing that vendors spout when the use case is still being fleshed out — but platform is already much more than this.

In reality, if the customer science light bulb shines brightly above your head, platform is essential for the simple reason that the modern, customer science-driven front office can’t possibly write by hand all of the software you’d need to support a single business process across desktop, laptop, iOS and Android — let alone integrating apps from Salesforce, Oracle, Microsoft and SAP.

Thus, platform has become the new application table stakes for our industry, and making apps on platforms that are open to the rest of the universe is a business necessity.

The big attraction of a platform — at least one constructed properly, in my humble judgment — is that for the most part, it exists a level above raw code, and it can generate the code for the business process on all of the platforms that a business wishes to deploy — one specification for all user interfaces the business is likely to need, from the handheld device to the desktop.

Additionally, a platform, rather than an application, should be the point of integration with third-party apps, so the platform must be able to support apps working together — whether they are all written natively or they come from widely different sources. The capability to do all of this was once science fiction, but today’s leading platform vendors make it look easy.

Customer Science Foundation

From a business perspective, it’s a game changer. Software companies (and most other companies) always have sought out ways to lock in customers. Prior generations relied on compilers and database standards to carry that load, with the result that getting applications simply to exchange data was viewed as reason to celebrate. No wonder it has always been so difficult to string together multivendor support for common business practices.

Platform is bigger than all that, and one example of its impact is the Force United Consortium, a group of vendors with applications built on top of the Salesforce1 Platform. They include Apttus, FinancialForce and ServiceMax among others.

Their extra value-add is first, that their disparate applications integrate well with Salesforce products, and second, that at the foundation level their solutions are almost indistinguishable from Salesforce and each other because they are platform native, meaning they use the same objects from the Salesforce toolkit. Of course, they do vastly different things too, and that’s the point.

The consortium elevates the members, as well as Salesforce, to the status of an uber application — sharing data, but even more importantly, sharing metadata that supports the business processes on a common platform that make customer science possible.

We’ve come a long way from the time when computer automation was mainly about making data more accessible to better support manual business processes. Big data gave us the insights to understand customers in ways we never could before, and platforms are enabling process automation — not simply data storage and retrieval.

There are still things that only people can do in this highly automated environment, but the new science and platforms make the people involved in the processes much more productive — and importantly, they provide better and more intimate association with customers.

Ironically, process automation is still not widely accepted. It is only gradually becoming part of the landscape — though of course, leading practitioners already have gotten and digested the email. Perhaps next year it will see greater emphasis for the rest of us.

Denis Pombriant

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 website. He is the author of Hello, Ladies! Dispatches from the Social CRM Frontier and can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on Google+.

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