Welcome to the CRM-isphere

We all like to say our businesses are “customer-centric.” It’s the de rigueur thing to say these days, and it’s the only smart way to describe yourself to your customer audience. It’s also something many of us are eager to believe.

But how many companies really revolve around the customer? Not many, and for realistic reasons. For instance, your business has goals and requirements that run counter to what customers’ wildest desires might be — you can’t provide the products and services you deliver for free, no matter how much that would delight your customers. Well, you could — briefly. Then you’d be out of business.

Or you could be so focused on responding to customer suggestions that you’d be unable to settle on a stable product line and thus suffer a blow to your profitability. So, obviously, customer-centricity already comes with some qualifications — you want to be focused on the customer while still running a profitable and sustainable business.

With these issues in play, it’s easy to see how the emphasis can start creeping away from the customer and back toward your internal business issues.

Lose the Road Map

The same goes for the technology you use to run your business and manage your customer relationships. The way you organize these systems is a reflection on the degree to which your company is actually customer-centric. Usually, even CRM isn’t really implemented to make the business more customer-centric. Most often, it’s put in place to drive sales — although, increasingly, service is a driver for CRM.

The software supports specific roles in the business performing specific tasks, but it does very little to reinforce the idea that the purpose of all this is ultimately to satisfy the customer as much as possible.

I think businesses can be profitable and sustainable while being truly customer-centric at the same time. However, to do so may require a radical re-thinking of how your company’s processes work. I suggest viewing it conceptually as a “CRM-isphere.”

Most businesses are organized like a flow chart or a road map: Each business role executes a series of processes, each proceeding down its arm of the chart from the beginning to the end. Often, there’s minimal interaction between various parts of the business; sales, marketing and service are disconnected except in areas that are necessary for the business — not for the customer.

Instead, a modern business should be thought of as spherical, like an atom. A central tool forms the nucleus of the enterprise, with various roles and other applications revolving around it like electrons.

In a truly customer-centric business, CRM is at the center. Things like marketing automation, business intelligence, lead management, social media monitoring, customer service tools, and even so-called back office applications like ERP are the electrons. They revolve around CRM, exchanging data back and forth in as close to real-time as possible. No data or application is siloed, and no customer activities take place without the knowledge of others in the organization affected by those activities.

Just Sayin’

Re-engineering your business in this way — rather than just saying you’re customer-centric — will force everyone in the organization to see that the customer relationship is the ultimate aim. It should also help to allow everyone in the organization to do their individual jobs with an awareness of how they impact the customer — from the people who deal with customers directly all the way back to the employees who manufacture products or perform services — those whom the customer never sees. That’s the real definition of a customer-centric business.

The idea of the CRM-isphere isn’t exclusively mine; former colleague Kate Beale coined the term in a discussion we had last year, and Forrester’s Bill Band put forward a very similar theory in the summer of 2009. While it’s fun to talk about, putting such a model in place — especially at a large, well-established business with lots of ossified processes and closely guarded turf — would be an exceptionally arduous task.

That’s why I think that small businesses may be where this real customer-centric revolution starts. Small businesses already understand the value of their individual customers, and since employees often are forced to wear multiple hats, they have a better understanding of how one task can impact the customer several tasks down the road.

They’re also less likely to have turf to defend. As small businesses grow, they can introduce technology into this model more easily and build it from the nucleus out — a much easier task than unraveling a set of company-centric technologies and trying to re-engineer their focus back to the customer.

Obviously, a technology-only strategy will fail. There needs to be an emphasis on human customer-centricity as well, posing perhaps an even more daunting challenge. But giving your employees the ability to access and share customer-centric data will make it much easier to apply their customer-centric intentions.

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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