Reaching the Untapped CRM Market: Talk About Problems, Not Apps

As hard as it may be for CRM veterans to accept, there are still a great many businesses out there who don’t have an application to track the customer and to feed data to sales, marketing and service. These businesses — mostly small — are not in the position to afford an employee designated as the CRM decision-maker or implementer; like the other activities in these businesses, customer relationship management is just one of a number of tasks being juggled by an all-too-small group of employees.

Many vendors would love to find ways to reach this part of the market. The right tools, with the right degree of complexity, could find a ready home within these businesses, doing for their sales and marketing efforts what applications like QuickBooks do for finance.

The problem is not that applications can’t be built to cater to this audience — they’re already out there. The problem is that there’s a disconnect between the vendors and their potential customers.

The Moment

The move toward CRM, regardless of the size of the organization deploying it, is usually spurred by one final event or realization — the straw that broke the camel’s back and which finally made objections moot and overcame organizational entropy. For large businesses, when this event takes place, the call goes out to people in the organization who are there because they have a strong grasp of CRM concepts and technologies. The problem that broke the logjam is dealt with, but so are a host of related problems.

In a small business, however, the emphasis remains on the problem at hand. And that, I think, is the barrier between CRM vendors and the many small businesses that could benefit from CRM. Instead of looking for answers to a CRM problem, businesses look to answers to a specific problem — “how can I keep my sales team’s contact information organized?” for example. There are solutions for that, ranging from an Excel spreadsheet to a simple contact management application. While they may solve today’s problem, they lay the foundation for future problems, when a hodgepodge of point solutions end up siloing data and creating confusion when it comes to application maintenance.

Most small-businesspeople do not look at a sales issue, a service breakdown or a failure in marketing and immediately flash on the acronym “CRM.” It’s not part of the vocabulary of your local printer, a small trucking company manager, or the neighborhood sandwich shop owner. It’s a concept they could benefit from — if only they understood what it was.

In Other Words

So for the vendors looking to tap into this space, there’s a clear path to these customers: reframe your discussion of your products in terms of the problems small businesses face. Although they tend to attack one problem at a time, these businesses don’t just suffer from just one impediment. There are other nagging issues they face that CRM can address but which simply aren’t yet commanding enough of the business owner’s limited attention to be a consideration. But if a vendor can weave a story or set of stories about how they can solve the problem at hand — and multiple additional problems that linger in the background — at a comparable cost to point solutions, and with a greater degree of manageability (and, in the case of cloud-based applications, with a greater degree of affordability), then that vendor can make major inroads into this untapped customer audience.

That’s going to take something that’s fleetingly rare among CRM vendors: actually engaging in the core CRM activity of viewing business from their customers’ point of view. As is often the case, the challenge is not a technological one — it’s a human one. The vendors know their solutions can work — its up to them now to explain to businesses who are not steeped in CRM jargon and philosophy how the technology can work for them.

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 three books on World War II aviation.

1 Comment

  • The issue is the term "CRM" – most people don’t get it in small businesses. It’s like CMS or ERP or any other acronym coined by vendors – they are not in the customer’s language. Compare "I need to implement a new CMS" vs "I need to build a new website".

    For many small businesses – particularly consultants and agencies – the thing that is most important is the pipeline i.e. "where is my next sale coming from" NOT "what notes have been added to the CRM".

    I’d like to see the term customer relationship management system dropped!

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