The Fuzzy Front End of CRM

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Call me crazy, but I believe customers truly want me (us) to bring innovative ideas to the table. The obstacle we face is that these same customers have been conditioned to believe that I can just pull innovations out of my bag; as though our industry has standardized highly predictable innovative outcomes as a technology. Have you heard of the fuzzy front end of innovation? It’s fuzzy because the methods for tightly targeting product and service opportunities are non-existent – at least in the broader CRM world. The framework exists, but no one seems to care.

A twitter follower reminded me (this post has been a draft for 2 years) of an article I wrote awhile back that I think shows some of the symptoms of having a fuzzy & customer controlled front end to CRM.

For a good period of time, I was dealing with the symptoms, and I made a great living at it. After 15 years of CRM, however, I believe customers are beginning to expect more from their consultants – a lot more. The age of the CRM contractor is nearing an end and the age of the outcome oriented front end CRM consultant is dawning.

As evidenced from my earlier post, customers are not really that good at defining what they need. They focus on tools they know how to use, and how they might be incrementally improved. Because of that, we never get a solid understanding of all of their needs – whether we can currently serve them or not. As a result, they provide information that has little relationship to a) your consulting capabilities, b) the capabilities of the software you are trying to sell them and c) the business outcomes they desperately need in order to compete. On top of all of that, there is no system in place to monitor emerging products and services and investigate how they may serve their current set of unmet needs (the ones we never talk about).

The last thing they need is technology they don’t know how to leverage, or worse, more technology that they don’t need (and therefore don’t use). The interference in their day to day business when users revolt due to bad design assumptions or product selections, destroys value. As I pointed out in my earlier post, it was great for me then, but these days I believe we are being (and must be) held to a much higher standard – and it’s not just the economy that’s driving this. We’re also contending with the rise of the cloud, and it’s disruption of the traditional CRM technologist. With old services falling by the wayside, it’s time to look at the services that take place before the software can be selected, or used. We only think we know why customers purchase CRM technology; because we’re uncomfortable gazing into…

For about 10 years now, there have been writers and thought leaders attacking this problem from a number of angles. Each within their own discipline, they write about how to be more effective in marketing, customer service, sales and a variety of concepts that fall within these disciplines (or should). The problem seems to be that CRM consultants aren’t listening very carefully, and this is understandable because most of them are not really management consultants. They are technology contractors (and there’s nothing wrong with that!)

However, they are partnered with teammates that are compensated by pushing software at a high rate of speed; and the consultants depend on the software to drive their services. David Brock talks about that problem, and I’ve mentioned it a few times myself. Discounting and gimmickry are not a recipe for long term success; it’s gaming the system to meet goals that don’t serve the customer, only internal managers. I’ve found that it no longer serves the technology consultants very well. The most basic old school sales and marketing fundamentals tell us we do too much pushing of our own needs, and not enough understanding of our customers’ needs.

That’s where the fuzzy stuff comes in…customer needs. How many of you have a system for uncovering customer needs that go beyond the current solutions today (your product or service)? So many of the theories over the past 20 + years, like voice of the customer (VOC), have proven to be failures. It’s not just that these approaches to surfacing needs don’t work, it’s that we then set this information aside and construct strategies, processes and measures that serve our internal needs – not those of our customers. Is this how we get noticed in the CRM world; by pushing features and tools? Having said that, we don’t really know all our customers unmet needs either. Perhaps if we did, things might change.

Are you ready to be exposed to a less fuzzy front end to CRM? One that recognizes that our current CRM technology simply cannot solve your business problems for you? There is no technology that will grow your business year after year, nor is there a technology that will ensure that you are profitable. Technology is not there to do that, you are (the organization). Once you understand the appropriate methods required, you can hire technology to help you. Are you ready to learn what it takes to create value for, and with your customers instead of chasing pocket change to meet this month’s quota?

In order for CRM to get on the trajectory of success, and I mean real success not just technology implementation success, we all need to realize that there are things that need to be in place. An organization that has made a technology purchasing decision is in either one of two situations

  1. They have defined a clear set of strategic goals for the organization, designed a systematic set of interrelated capabilities to execute toward those goals and understand what drives value through varying combinations of new customer acquisition, growth of existing customers, driving customer referrals and customer retention. These companies leverage technology to further enhance their competitive capabilities.
  2. They had been shown demos by every leading CRM software vendor. They had compared and contrasted the features they think they need. They worked through their business problems on their own, and then struggled to reconcile what they thought they knew, with software features their vendors think they need. This is based on gut instinct, easy access and emotional needs…and nothing more.

Which process do most companies really follow? Do they…

  • make high risk investment in technology before they know how to leverage it effectively?
  • pay for features they will never use?
  • have low adoption because the technology doesn’t really help them get their job done better?
  • struggle to tie their investment back to improvements in the top line and/or bottom line?

You may have heard how some companies are becoming more agile or lean. Some are shedding the command and control structure with either feel good approaches (don’t recommend) and others are using tried and tested methodologies like Lean to drive toward customer-centricity. Do their tools become more agile with them? Or were they designed to work in a command and control, inside-out world.

Organizations such as these design capabilities which allow decisions to be made closer to the customer, with a high degree of reliability. Many are exploring better ways to understand their customers’ needs. They are systems thinkers who are carefully designing the interdependent processes, and measuring points in the process. Regardless of their position on the CRM maturity ladder, you have to ask whether they can collect, measure and act on the data that they need to be competitive using today’s tools. Before they can do any of that, however, they need to remove the fuzz, and look at customer needs from a completely new perspective.


This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

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