CRM applications used by the frontline have been around for around 20-30 years. My first consulting job was designing a CRM portal for wealth management advisors distributed around the country. Technically, it was web based and was a bit of a reach at the time but it was highly innovate and essentially had all the moving parts you see in CRM applications today. Over time, I went on to design and launch many more CRM applications covering a broad range of areas some of which won awards or were highly placed. CRM apps cover a wide range of touchpoints usages and my focus here are those CRM apps used by the frontline when the engage with the customer.
The world of CRM apps has not changed much. Today’s CRM apps are slicker, more integrated an easier to be program. But overall, they still fundamentally are hard to use, hard to enforce a process with and generally try to force you to enter in structured data all for the explicit purpose of using that data an the backend side.
In other words, the way you interact or want to interact with a customer–a fluid dance of conversations and touchpoints–comes to a jarring halt when you have to type your customer “data” into a relatively fixed, confining CRM application on your screen. Even the marketing automation space has learned that it screwed up as it realized that email campaigns have become old school and the nuances of social media marketing and messaging are the new black. After all, a growing majority of people today use email less than the previous generation, significantly less.
What is the future?
The future is not narrow list of checkboxes, pick lists, small text boxes or small fields to capture one specific concept, like the first name.
Instead the future is fluid and free flowing, much like many of the newer collaboration tools just now gaining prominence in small companies and now larger companies. It’s more about “notes” and small snippets of information versus structured screens. It’s more about searching different locations for data about customers and not requiring that all information be managed in a single tool. It’s about automating the interactions so that the right information is available to personalize a touchpoint.
Evidence for this model abound:
- CRM applications now have “chatter” or “posts” that capture a stream of unstructured notes and objects like pictures or audio clips.
- Applications like “slack” show that collaboration and documentation is easier when it’s fluid, in context and completely searchable. Trello is the same way.
- Many CRM applications capture only a few structured fields and most of the complexity is really around trying to capture additional customer information–which is where the application start becoming unwieldy.
- Most CRM software tries to tie together a 360 degree view of the customer using various ad-hoc methods of integrating with other applications. They shoehorn that “app’s” data into the CRM application to get a 360 degree view of a customer. These integration costs are often the largest costs in a CRM project.
- CRM has started to rely on data mining and machine learning algorithms to help the advisor/rep become more productive about how to spend their time at the same time they personalize communication to the customer.
- CRM automation is increasing as bots and other automation techniques become more prevalent…for some products and channels, customers prefer automation.
Now CRM is more than just capturing information about customers, it’s also about servicing them and using information, again in context, to order their products, resolve their issues or try to understand their behavior. Getting information from other applications into the context “flow” has proven to be very tricky.
It’s true that some data, like an order, is highly structured and needs to be in sequence properly to support the supply chain, that’s fair. But a lot of CRM data does not need the same amount of structure. When interacting with a company’s rep or a automated systems, the needs are much different. CRM apps do need to digest data of different media types and tell you what’s important. Or, at the very least, sort through the data and summarize it for you.
In other words, the future of CRM is really more like an instant messaging program like Slack or a free-form note taking application OneNote or collaborative management tool like Trello then an application framework like popular CRM platforms today. Think tweets and hashtags and AI driving data record enrichment.
It’s not about checkboxes anymore. Sales people do not really like check checkboxes. Text mining, or unstructured analysis–whatever you want to call it–is mature enough to sort through the data and fined postal addresses, email addresses, phone numbers and linkage information to connect all the dots and prepare the data for analytical use. Network analysis is mature enough to create a graph of contacts, with context, from your email and notes. This crystal ball thinking is true for both B2C and B2B although B2B has regulatory issues that suggest that it does require some additional “structure.” In fact, these techniques are in play in extremely advanced CRM scenarios such as Know Your Customer in the AML/BSA space.
A lot of what passes today for CRM software is just a jumble of straight jackets that are unneeded and run counter to how people communicate, create information and collaborate today.