There's a faction in the technology industry that has a very high opinion of what CRM can do, or what it will do, once it goes through The Next Major Transformation That's Just About To Happen!!! My own belief in a CRM revolution makes me more of an optimistic pragmatist like Thomas Jefferson or James Madison, and less of a impatient radical like Danton and Robespierre.
We're certainly seeing how many organizations are making big changes to their business practices. The CRM system helps organize and communicate information about customers, as well as routinize the activity of customer-facing groups. The CRM system is also a resource for making product decisions, though companies have been slow to use their CRM data in that fashion. If I were to bet on any repository of data within an organization that's going to become more central to a company's strategy and operations, I'd vote for the CRM system.
But how far will this revolution in customer relationship management go? And will other market forces, such as the proliferation of social media, accelerate this trend further?
For part of the answer, look no further than your local Safeway.
Well, you know, we all want to change the world
There's a Safeway close to the Forrester office in Northern California, so I'm a frequent customer there, particularly around the lunch hour. Although I haven't posted my actual picture anywhere in this blog, you can take my word for the fact that I am not physically or mentally incapacitated. I can pick up a heavy box of books and carry them into the garage with little effort. Few jars have ever been able to resist my impressive upper body strength. If you're curious about my ability to get around on my own power, here's a fact: during vacations, I usually spend my days on my feet, hoping to squeeze in as many different sights as I can in a limited amount of time.
Nevertheless, every time I make a purchase at Safeway, the clerk asks me the same question: "Would you like help carrying that out?" I could have purchased only a single tube of toothpaste and a bunch of bananas, and I get the same question.
Clearly, the management of Safeway has made this question mandatory for their clerks, no matter how ridiculously inappropriate it may be. I suspect there's a great deal of pressure on the clerks to ask this inane question, given how seriously they treat it. I've tried making a joke of it with them--usually something like, "God, I hope not!"--but their faces remain as immutable as the Easter Island moa.
If the revolution in customer relationship management is all about sensitivity to particular consumers, then we see evidence every day that the revolution may not be as widespread or complete as some might believe. About the only thing that's personalized about my shopping experience at Safeway is, after swiping my Club Card, the clerk says, "Thank you very much, Mr. Grant." Which, of course, is right before they ask, "Do you need help out with that?"
You know we all want to change your head
Revolutions rarely achieve the goals of their most zealous adherents. The tools of revolution, from the Declaration of Independence to the guillotine, can inspire people to behave differently, and which can lead to organizational changes. (Or, it might work the other way around, changing the organization first, and then the behavior.)
The tools of revolution can't change everything overnight, and may not be able to overcome some ways in which human beings think and act. For example, no investment in a CRM system will change how the decision-maker behind Safeway's "Do you need help out with that?" policy uses the data, or even looks at it at all.
If you read some of the most quotable quotes from Maximilian Robespierre, you'd be surprised that they came out of the mouth of someone directly responsible for one of history's greatest bloodbaths. Who can argue with a statement like, "Any law which violates the inalienable rights of man is essentially unjust and tyrannical"?
Well, you know, we'd all like to see the plan
The frustration with the slow pace of achieving these ideals is one of the major reasons why revolutions often turn nasty. The French revolutionaries experimented with a lot of policies, such as changing the calendar to make the current date the "Year Zero," to reach a more just society as quickly as possible. When none of these measures worked, many supported the Terror as a way to get rid of the people who stood in the way of revolutionary change. (If you can't make people better, you can get rid of them.)
The CRM "revolution," if it's indeed happening, is definitely aiming for the right goals. Improvements in CRM technology, as well as adjacent technologies like social media, are going to contribute to that change. However, the revolution won't really happen until people change their attitudes, behavior, SOPs, and other human factors that determine how organizations relate to their customers.
Meanwhile, the revolution is likely to start with more prosaic changes, like getting rid of the duplicates and out-of-date information in the CRM system, or getting more people to stop what they're doing long enough to enter information into the CRM system. These improvements may inspire people to think more ambitiously about CRM, and more ambitious expectations of CRM might make these projects more of a priority.
In both cases, you can't avoid dealing with the mundane issues that stand in the way of revolutionary changes. (Do you invite friends over to inspire you to clean up the house, or do you clean up the house and then feel inspired to invite friends over? Either way, you need to clean up the house.) If you try to ignore them, you're only setting yourself up for disappointment and cynicism.