When I got my first job as an adult, the boss was fond of saying that everyone sells. He didn’t mean that everyone carried a quota or got commissions; we all were responsible, to the extent possible, for advancing the company’s objectives for such things as revenue and customer satisfaction.
Looking back, my boss had a sound idea that was implemented poorly, if at all, at a small company lacking in much of the technology we take for granted today. Let’s just say a lot fell through the floorboards. When we spoke of technology, we often meant the terminals on our desks and the company’s prized fax machine. There were no marketing databases, routers, switches, Web sites, or software for building Web sites and campaigns. Consequently, helping a customer often meant taking a call and then literally going the extra mile by walking up to the third floor to straighten out a billing issue or heading downstairs to check with the VP of software development about a bug or the development schedule.
Within my company, I was able to accomplish a lot for my customers largely because I was able to get into the faces of people like the CFO and the CTO (who happened to be the founder, too). That’s because I developed a degree of trust through repeated face-to-face contacts with the upper echelon of the company.
But that’s not typical, especially in a large company where people still manage in a hierarchical, top-down, by-the-balance-sheet manner. We talk about flattening hierarchies, but there’s a difference between removing layers of management and giving responsibility to the workers and simply replacing that management with automation.
Automation is great, but, at least in some cases, we’ve substituted it for real business change. We’ve got CRM in place in most organizations and we’re building out social infrastructures to capture and use information from customers and employees to advance the cause. We’re finally at that point where everyone could more or less sell, and my old boss would approve.
The thing that’s lacking, though, and I don’t see technology as a driving force to provide it, is the trust needed within the organization to let the employee act on best instincts (backed up by data) to serve the customer. I see glimmers in surprising places, however.
Starbucks, for instance, seems to give a great deal of power to their front-line people to ensure customers get what they want, even if it costs a few bucks. I once bought a pound of coffee and had them grind it, but forgot to take it with me. The next day, I discovered my mistake and went back and rather sheepishly asked if they still had it. “No,” the counter person said. “But we’ll grind another pound for you,” and they did. I was impressed, to say the least.
Bob Lutz recently wrote a book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle for the Soul of American Business. He should know something about this topic because he spent his 47-year career in the halls of power at Ford, BMW, Chrysler, and General Motors. His broader point is that the corporations for which he has worked don’t give enough customer-delight responsibility to their employees.
Cars are not coffee, you might say, and one needs a more rigorous production process. Granted, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Lutz’s book is a lament about the takeover of engineer-driven product companies by generally trained MBAs. The former never tire of asking the question, “What does the customer want?” And the latter always asks first, “What does it cost?”
Inside the technology world, that may be hard to believe. But the world outside is not like our industry, and there’s still a lot of work to do teaching and developing trust. When I think about a day in the life of some future CRM user, it’s not the technology that crosses my mind; rather, I think about how well empowered those people will be to do great things for customers. The software will be important, but secondary, because we can build anything. But if we build it, as the saying goes, will they come?
Denis Pombriant, founder and managing principal of CRM market research firm and consultancy Beagle Research Group, has been writing about CRM since January 2000 and was the first analyst to specialize in on-demand computing. His 2004 white paper, “The New Garage,” laid out the blueprint for cloud computing. He can be reached via email (email@example.com) or on Twitter (@denispombriant).