It’s Time for CRM Suites to Recognize the Customer


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CRM has been a stable tool set for many years because the particular combination of sales, marketing, service and support is a “just right” solution. In other words, it fits the need. But now the need is changing. The current suite of front-office applications is designed for a boom era when emerging companies elbowed into the market trying to grab market share for new categories of products. For quite a while now, there has been plenty of evidence that the market for products and services is changing to be more reflective of a mature or maturing market.

As I have observed previously in this situation, vendors are just as likely to be selling a follow-on product to an existing customer as they are to be recruiting brand-new customers. This reality has been a driving force behind the customer orientation of Sales 2.0 and a resurgent interest in marketing, and it has driven an enormous discussion about the customer and the customer experience. But how is the customer accounted for in the CRM suite? Not very well, I am afraid.

You might say that we already know who the customer is. For example, customer data is already kept in the SFA system, the marketing system, customer service and accounting systems. But I would counter that all of these systems store attributes of the customer without giving an accurate picture of the customer.

All of these systems store attributes of the customer without giving an accurate picture of the customer.

Consider that SFA keeps a snapshot of the buying influences and a record of actions and reactions between the vendor and customer, but this information typically ages out quickly and is not usually refreshed by the sales representatives, who move on to other business once a deal is closed. Similarly, marketing keeps a record of buying interest, but, depending on the organization, the quality of the data is, at best, inconsistent.

The customer service system keeps information about interactions with users, and, while the information might be very detailed, depending on the type of business—B2B or B2C, for example—the user may not be the same person as the customer. Much the same can be said of the accounting system, which captures information about who in the customer organization pays the bills. But the bill payer is not necessarily the customer, either.

The Balkanization of customer data makes it difficult to know the customer, and when the time comes to sell an upgrade, we often discover that we need to start over. There is no one in our databases to sell to because the names of people we have either can’t make a purchase decision or the people who had the business pain—and budget—the last time have moved on to other positions or even other organizations.

I suggest that we don’t know who the customer is, really, and because we don’t, we have been inventing workarounds in CRM to cover up this obvious fact. It also drives me to suggest the formal addition to the CRM suite of a new module that I refer to as the “customer module”—the first new addition to CRM in a long time.

As a thoroughly CRM 2.0 concept, the customer module should contain the following:

  • A database for tracking customer demographic information that is capable of being maintained by the individual, as well as the vendor—much like a social networking site. This would give a vendor a concise map of the buyer/user organization.
  • A community interface through which the vendor could interrogate the customer base about product innovation, messaging and anything else. In this interface, which might be considered a customer laboratory, individuals could interact to trade information about their use of a vendor’s products and services, and vendors could observe and collect data. Importantly, when a vendor captures feedback, the stored demographic information, along with analytics, will help segment the input by buying influence.
  • Analytics to slice and dice the data generated by the community. The segmentation described above would be important here.
  • A loyalty program mechanism for rewarding good customer behavior for repeat purchases or especially valuable contributions in the community.

The customer module completes the round trip from innovation to product to customer that has been part of CRM for so long. The missing link—customer to innovation or co-creation of value—has been around in various guises for a long time, but it has been relatively ad hoc and something that only companies with deep pockets could afford.

Customer input has traditionally come from marketing outreach in the form of surveys and focus groups that tend to generate either small amounts of data or volumes that take too long to analyze. A customer module would replace all that with a continuous interface.

So to come full circle, I think the CRM suite has been rather stable for a long time simply because it could be. Once the full suite of CRM 1.0 tools was articulated, it served the existing need pretty well. Today the need has morphed into customer-centric outreach, and most people would say CRM vendors are trying to change with it. But the change that’s required will not be satisfied with additional applications alone. A customer module makes a lot of sense as a way to recognize the cardinal importance the customer takes as the center of the CRM universe.

Denis Pombriant
Beagle Research Group, LLC
Denis Pombriant is a well-known thought leader in CRM and the founder and managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, LLC, a CRM market research firm and consultancy.


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