The Season of Sustainability

Over the last couple of weeks, I have maintained radio silence, hardly blogging as I tried to prepare a manuscript for publication. This piece is not the usual analyst fare with charts and graphs and interpretations. It’s a simple book of my writings from the last year and a half.

Many things came to the forefront during the collating process. For instance, while I think of myself as a CRM industry analyst, most of the writing fell into several other buckets — like Social CRM, Web 2.0, customer experience and sustainability. You might say that those categories are part and parcel of CRM these days, and I would be inclined to agree with you. What was interesting to me, though, was that these buckets are a long way from the six stovepipes I started covering back in 2000, which included sales, marketing, service, support, field service and help desk.

Clearly, the new orientation represents a flattening of the stovepipes and a move away from a functional definition of “CRM” to something more, shall we say, results oriented? It’s all good in my book (no pun intended) but it also says much about the state of the marketplace. There’s no doubt in my mind that the expanding marketplace that CRM was launched into in the late 1990s is becoming closed-in. Some of the essays in the book make that point, and that’s where a new idea comes in, sustainability.

Beyond the Bright Lights

A typical response to sustainability is to relate it to something green. While that’s a good idea, sustainability in business can mean a lot more, like treating customers as a renewable resource rather than the opponent in a one-and-done encounter. The emphasis on cross-selling and up-selling these days is a tacit acknowledgement of sustainability’s importance. So, too, is the growing acceptance of Web conferencing, video and support for large meetings as ways to limit the cost of transportation in business processes.

Any market ages, in the sense that it can become saturated with a product type. When that happens, vendors know they need to pay more attention to their existing customers rather than attempt to capture more net new ones. That’s when cross-selling and up-selling become more important. So here we are.

Sustainability acknowledges these truths, and leading vendors have already looked ahead to the point where they focus on the customer’s experience while trying to find ways to further engage customers through social interactions.

SAP has a group dedicated to sustainability; Salesforce is solidly oriented toward sustainable business processes with its new cloud orientation, and so is Oracle with its social CRM and Fusion programs. Most of the innovation in sustainability, though, is taking place beyond the bright lights.

When Communispace was founded, it took a different approach to community, and I have seen it do amazing things with companies seeking to co-create value with customers. Communispace is doing very well these days. So is BrainShark, which is devoted to alternative methods companies can employ to share information internally and with customers. The approach is low cost and can help a vendor reduce the overhead of travel, and that can fall right to the bottom line. iCentera focuses on the power of portals to work with customers. It’s another example of how anyone can keep the life in a customer relationship and maybe save money on transportation.

Out of the Shadows

There are many more vendors getting involved in sustainable business processes in multiple ways. While no one I know of — other than me — is talking about sustainability in such concrete terms, it appears to me that the next area for innovation is right here. It works that way in markets very often. Someone — or a whole company — works in the shadows for a long time and one day seems to come from nowhere to claim a big new market.

Sustainability isn’t trendy, though, or one of those things that’s nice to have. The activity I am seeing represents underlying market needs that I think will only increase over time. The needs I see include finding ways to capture increased high-quality customer input with minimal transportation costs so that vendors can better position themselves to deliver the products and services customers really want.

SAP, Salesforce, Oracle, Communispace, BrainShark and iCentera and many others I can’t mention by name all exemplify the innovation potential for the next phase of CRM. This phase is gathering steam, and I would not be surprised if the recovery sees a sharp upturn in all things sustainable. At least that’s what my book is going to say.

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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