Despite what CRM advocates may say, the relationship that manufacturers have with customers isn't really based on integrated touch points or personalized Web content. While those efforts do help differentiate a company from its competitors, the real relationship manufacturers have with customers is about products. And while marketers have directed CRM efforts toward automating timely and relevant communication with customers, only recently have they attempted to automate the key internal processes that drive timely and relevant product development.
Now, new marketing automation systems are helping companies streamline their internal product development processes. These Web-based tools improve the complex business processes involved with marketing and product life cycle management, making them more effective and efficient.
It's an area largely unaddressed by traditional enterprise resource planning (ERP) and CRM vendors. More often, this space, with its own unique needs, is supported by custom solutions cobbled together from generic project management tools. "Product managers and marketers have requirements that are separate from those of people who run campaigns," says Sam Clark, a service director with Meta Group, stamford, Conn. "They need to make sure that they capture market demand quickly and that they communicate it to the product developers."
This need for speed has marketers hungry for such tools. In the Internet era, efficiency and speed to market have become the zeitgeist. Everyone knows competitors are just a click or a distribution channel away. Down the street, someone may be using computer simulation to model a product to replace yours. Consequently, gone are three- and four-year development schedules. Speed to market means money.
"As long ago as the early to mid-'80s it became very clear that time to market was a critical competitive variable. Firms that had highly efficient, integrated product development processes--from market opportunity identification and concept development through to actual delivery of the product--had a significant competitive advantage over firms that were less effective and less speedy in bringing out the correct product and addressing the correct need and the correct customer," says Harry Watkins Ph.D., senior analyst at Boston-based Aberdeen Group. Watkins' firm provides consulting and market strategy advice to the IT supplier community.
The Aberdeen Group predicts that demand for internal product marketing automation and management solutions will rise to over $1 billion in three years.
Throughout the processes of gathering requirements for a product plan, developing market requirements documents, developing product specifications, managing to those specifications, testing, delivering and so on, it's hard to keep everyone together, especially when you're moving fast. Miscommunication--or lack of any communication at all--among the members of the marketing, engineering and executive departments regularly plagues the product development process. Consequently, time ticks by as people work through each misinterpretation and repercussion.
According to Watkins, there are now a number of vendors developing Web-centric solutions that facilitate the collaboration, communication, scheduling, tracking of delivery against responsibilities and status coordination associated with product development.
One such pioneering vendor is Austin, Texas-based productmarketing.com, which attempts to address some of these inefficiencies, inaccuracies and misunderstandings through its Web-based product development process tools, Accolades and Compass. Accolades creates a product marketing command center centralizing all marketing requirements data and serves as a collaborative platform for product teams to communicate and refine product features. Its new sister product, Compass, helps product managers identify, collect, manage and analyze market and customer needs from which to define product features.
"Our product is a puzzle tool for managing all of these different bits of information, putting them in chronologically so that you have an historical record of what decisions were made, when and why. It enables companies' product marketing teams to have greater real-time visibility to all of the information right at their fingertips," says Jay Pinkert, director of communications at productmarketing.com.
Without the kind of good processes these "puzzle tools" support, miscommunication seems inevitable given the jumble of issues and materials to be managed. "What happens in traditional product marketing loops is that you have a succession of meetings, spreadsheets and e-mails that become a tangle that becomes difficult to manage," adds Pinkert.
There's also the problem, says Russ Caccamisi, productmarketing.com's executive vice president, with getting all team members to sing from the same sheet of music. "It happens all of the time," he says. "You've got some group in the company that is out working on a piece of what this company is going to offer, but somebody's out working on old data."
Accolades and Compass facilitate collaboration, discussion, argument and ultimately, the decision and dissemination of the plan via the Web. "It's not to say that you can't have a misunderstanding, but it dramatically reduces the instance thereof," says Caccamisi.
And things speed up. The company reports that all of the time saved from not having to unravel bits of dislocated information has enabled some of its customers to reduce their time-to-market processes by one third or more.
These tools are particularly useful to companies with high turnover or when new members are added to a product team. "If you get a new engineer in, he can go back and look at the record of all of the collaboration that happened that allowed that decision to get made," says Caccamisi. "Not only does that speed things up, but it leaves people no rock to hide behind. No one can say that they weren't at the meeting."
As they are an ongoing record of the project, these tools not only assist with planning and communication, but they create an archive of product marketing decisions. In reverse, it's an audit trail through which the development team can get the full history of, say, a product feature. It's possible to see who made a specific recommendation, why and whether the requirements for it emerged from key customer requests or were perhaps the brainchild of someone no longer associated with the product.
Interestingly, some foresee bumps down the road from such audit trails. "That's something that really benefits the engineers," says Clark, who goes on to explain that when there are problems with a product's features, engineers often complain that marketing didn't adequately specify the product's requirements. "It's going to force product marketers to do a better job on their front in terms of market requirement specifics," he says.
New Ears to the Ground
Another type of marketing tool for ensuring that decisions are well considered allows companies to survey customers. An emerging leader on this frontier is Aprimo, based in Indianapolis. The company offers Aprimo Marketing, a Web-based application for managing the planning, delivery and analysis of marketing activities. It enables users to launch surveys and collect data for marketing plans. Aprimo already boasts an impressive list of clients that includes Burger King, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Bell South and Agilent Technologies.
"One of the key things the technology enables product managers to do is quickly and inexpensively collect structured information about what customers really want," says Joe Meyer, vice president of product marketing at Aprimo. "They can get information about strategic product direction or more tactical things like making specific tradeoffs for feature functions being contemplated by a development organization."
Surveys provide quantified data that can be used to drive product development in ways that other feedback--from clickstream, for example--falls short. Clickstream might only provide insight to how customers evaluate existing choices, not on how they would like products to evolve with them.
Meyer offers this example of how the Aprimo tool works. Say there was a strategic product direction, and you wanted to get feedback from your customer base on your plan to take this product fundamentally in one way or another for one release cycle. This change in direction would be something with a fairly significant engineering effort behind it so you could only do one or the other. Using Aprimo Marketing, you can survey these customers to find out how each direction might impact them. You could then correlate that information to the kind of customer they are, the kind of industry they are in.
The resulting information is invaluable to strategic planners and marketers. It can also lessen friction between engineers and marketers, who may have a difference of opinion when it comes to specific new products or features. Having customer survey participation provides marketers powerful ammunition. "On a technical point, for example, it's easier for an engineer to win because engineers have the power. But with inexpensive and quick to administer surveys, now product managers have an ability to go out and ask the market, and so they can back up their argument," explains Meyer.
While there are numerous online survey applications, those developed by product marketing automation vendors offer a specific marketing focus that delivers effective response analysis. Aprimo Marketing, for example, includes an online analytical processing (OLAP) tool for finding relationships in incoming data. According to Meyer, Aprimo Marketing can be used to bring those responses back in, evaluate them within the context of history with other customers and analyze that information within the context of how a marketing organization works.
What Do You Think?
From a CRM perspective, these Web-based connections give customers a direct say in the products and services vendors offer, placing the customer at the heart of the product life cycle. "The issue is not necessarily that marketing processes are being more automated from an internal perspective than from how they touch customers externally. It's more about how you're connecting the life cycle of the customer to the life cycle of the product," says Clark.
According to Caccamisi, customer participation at this level is rare, to say the least. "What CRM has done so far is to connect the company to the customer," he says. "What CRM has not done yet, as well as it will in the future, is to connect the customer to the product and to give the customer some skin in the product, upstream of product announcement. It allows a company to go to its best customers and say, 'This is my product plan. This is my marketing requirements document for the next couple of releases,' and ask 'What do you think?'"
While many marketing automation tools can ask this question, few can effectively process customers' answers. Therein lies the value of this new CRM breed that is designed to open up the entire process to key customer participation. Getting such input has long been behind face-to-face meetings with customers, focus groups, customer advisory councils and so on, but the Web is fast becoming a valuable tool for simplifying and speeding that exchange. "I think the essence of what we are trying to do is connecting the marketplace--the customer--to the internal product process itself, be it development, marketing or any other step," says Caccamisi.
On the surface, or more specifically, from a marketing department operations perspective, the value proposition of applications in this space is decreased time to market, but they'll really gain traction if they not only bring products to market faster, but bring better products to market faster.
"There is a piece of CRM that I think is really important and that is to maximize the customer lifetime value of an individual customer to a firm, to get them more wired into you so that they will buy more of your stuff over their life cycle as a customer," says Caccamisi. "We think this whole notion of automating the product marketing process, appropriately extended with the Web to the customer will validate the old axiom that people buy more of the stuff that they think they helped build."