Making the Play with CRM
As with baseball, customer service is a waiting game.
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Not long ago, a customer asked me to name the best strategy for providing customer service. It's a natural question given the way we in the modern world think. Surely we can reduce any problem to one correct answer and be on our way, right?

Alas, the question embodies a contradiction that trips us up even before we start, because the search for a "solution" is ill informed from the beginning. In other words, the way we model the question has a lot to do with the answers or solutions we come up with, and in this case, my client had framed the issue of customer service the wrong way.

My customers are generally smart, smart, smart and they know it, so breaking this news to them had to be done with tact. Fortunately, I'd seen this before—;not just in CRM but all over the front office and even beyond. Formal logicians might call this the fallacy of the complex question, whose best exemplar is the hypothetical question a prosecutor asks a defendant, "Do you still beat your wife?" If you parse the question, you quickly realize that you can't answer it without indicting yourself. A simple "no" implies that you may have indeed once beaten your wife, even though your answer is directed more toward an absolute denial. A "yes," well, that won't work out very well either.

So what to do about my client seeking the one best strategy? The short answer is that there isn't one, but that is very unsatisfying because it implies a fatalistic belief that even the attempt is futile, which I disagree with.

If you reframe the question to something less encompassing, you will find that it has a satisfying answer that's elegant in its simplicity. To get there, you need to frame the question in terms of—what else?—baseball.

Baseball is a wonderful contradiction pitting the static against the kinetic, of waiting for something to happen and springing into action. But this should not be taken as being reactive as opposed to being proactive in every moment. Baseball, like customer service (and sales for that matter), is all about possibilities and probabilities that we can only prepare for until something happens.

The next time you can, take a look at the players on the field between pitches. They loosen up, kick dirt, spit, paw their gloves, whatever. The batter steps out of the box and performs his routine. The pitcher and catcher trade signs. It's all very relaxed. But when the pitcher winds up, everyone tenses, assumes a posture, and focuses on the only thing that matters, the trajectory of the ball between the mound and the plate.

George Will, an op-ed writer for The Washington Post and a baseball fan, among other things, has called this relaxation-tension routine a state of equipoise. The term has other shades of meaning, but for my purpose, equipoise perfectly describes how to provide customer service or perform sales for that matter.

The baseball player, let's say the shortstop, in equipoise, knows the pitch count, the number of outs, where the runners are on base, and the batter's likely response to certain pitches. He might take a step in any direction to position himself better for where the batter is likely to hit the ball. Knowing all this, the shortstop can field a hit and make an out where it will do his team the most good.

Alertness, years of practice, and talent provide the shortstop with the tools he needs to be effective. There is no one best way to play shortstop except to be prepared for what comes at you, and that's the answer to my client's question. If you are a CRM vendor accustomed to solving every customer problem with a product suggestion, this can give you fits, but it shouldn't. Eventually every product gets built out, and succeeding generations of users find increasing value in methods, of finding better ways to use what they have, of making the play.

Denis Pombriant is the founder and managing principal of Beagle Research Group and The Bullpen Group. He is a widely published CRM analyst in the U.S. and Europe, and his research spans all areas of social CRM, cloud, and mobile computing. His latest book, The Subscription Economy, is available on Amazon.

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