CRM is looking more like a homogeneous mass of business processes that fold into each other like a hot plasma of data, channels, and applications, morphing from one thing into another. That only sounds like science fiction. The rapid evolution of the front office aided by cloud technologies, social media, and powerful analytics has rewritten what it means to do business today. But it is also folding back on itself, and the technology that changed business is now being changed by business.
Perhaps the most profound change is in how we consider applications and how they interact. Not long ago, businesses operated on a transaction model. Systems recorded transaction data, and most of the business processes dealing with customers could be considered transactions, even when that was not wise. In my experience, vendors think in terms of transactions but customers think in terms of process—and the two ideas exist harmoniously in our minds, often without our conscious realization.
Yet, since the advent of social media, the drive to enable better and more workable business process support in the front office has only accelerated, and this is where technology-influencing-business-influencing-technology comes into play. The tools and techniques used to build transaction applications are becoming inadequate for the needs of true business processes. Real processes need if-then-else logic between each step, and they sometimes need people to smooth out the rough edges. They need access to work flow, collaboration, social media, analytics, and code-generating capacities that make apps for any operating system.
It is no longer useful to think of these things as bolt-ons for conventional transaction systems, because that leads to complexity. We need the opposite of complexity to turn over applications quickly when they no longer support our evolving processes. In short, we've entered the process age, a time when business processes can and do move in multiple directions, crossing technology, department, temporal, and regional boundaries at the speed of light. This places tremendous strain on transaction systems, and this strain is visible.
It's easy to see which businesses do a great job of supporting customer processes and which ones are still mired in transactions. Just go to any sentiment site on the Web, and if you look carefully, you will see that the customer complaints nearly all relate to some process or other run amuck, a situation in which a transaction system was installed where a system of engagement should have been. Here's one of my favorites from Consumerist.com:
"We are sold out of: 32 ct. Tums Ultra chewy, cherry antacids (245-05-0141). Please substitute: 10-ct. Trojan bare skin condoms (245-03-0387)."
Most of the customer complaints are not this funny.
This is where platform comes in. Platform is the appropriate response to the technology-influencing-business-influencing-technology conundrum because it has the capacity to deal with the complexities of processes. It also enables something that is too often missing from process, your employees' participation.
Platform-based process-centric systems of engagement make it possible to manage by exception, applying costly resources, such as people, where they are needed most.
We have never had such options before. Everything was a manual process, and manual processes are expensive. But we might have gone too far in the other direction, automating everything and turning what should be customer-centric processes into self-service. While self-service may be appropriate in many situations, our automated transaction systems leave us in a straitjacket, unable to be present for customers when we should be and puzzled about our Net Promoter Scores and the venom awaiting so many businesses on sentiment sites.
The solution is not difficult, but it is hard. It involves adopting platform technologies that support all of the approaches to customers that true processes require. And at the end of the day, it will empower our employees to do more of what only people can do—provide an empathetic moment when customers need it most. Done right it will also be cost effective, and the return on better interactions will be obvious.
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 latest research spans all areas of social CRM, cloud, and mobile computing. His latest book, The Subscription Economy, is available on Amazon.com.