What Do CRM Users Need? Just Ask Them

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CRM is all about customer communication. So it's not surprising that many CRM vendors formalize that interaction using customer advisory boards that have direct input into product development. These boards benefit the participants as well. Rod Ely, systems development manager and systems architect for Green Mountain Coffee, who sits on PeopleSoft's Product Advisory Council, says the revelations from the meetings are pure gold. "Twice a year I get a strategic update: Here's where they are and where they're planning to go," he says. "It helps us on our strategic plan." For Sean Hicks, senior manager of consumer communications at Nissan Motor Acceptance Corp., who is on the customer advisory board at Witness Systems, membership "has allowed me to have a more direct voice in what they're developing and bringing to market.... You get the ear of the people making the decisions." For some customers the networking is part of the draw. "I like the contact with the other companies and...developers," says Teri Lancaster, CRM implementation manager for window maker Pella. "This really does help me as a business implementer and getting answers to questions." Those connections can sometimes reveal where the marketplace is headed. "That's where a lot of the value is for us," says Todd Etherton, director of customer service and support for Maxtor, who is on RightNow Technologies' Product Direction Board. For him the benefit is more than just getting early input on the product, it's finding out where his peers are investing their time, money, and energy. Customer advisory boards' input sometimes alters the functionality of a product suite. Lancaster went into an Oracle customer board meeting a year ago with a very specific gripe. "We needed [each of our] business customers to see information about their own customers that another of our business customers couldn't see," she says. When she raised the issue Oracle reps expressed interest in why Pella needed that functionality and how the company would use it. Lancaster says, "They've added that security functionality into the next release." (Oracle confirms the functionality was added expressly because of Lancaster's request.) Etherton says that sometimes, enhancing the pipeline means slowing the vendor down, or keeping it from damaging a working product. When the RightNow advisors objected to some revised agent-facing functions, he says, "the board was able to bring usability back. We are able to say, 'Do not change this function.'" Vendors still have to decide whom to include in the first place--and invitations are scarce. "It can be seen as an elite set of customers," Green Mountain's Ely says, adding that the board he's on represents "a small enough set of customers but a wide range." But a good cross-section of customers can benefit everyone, he says. Customer advisory boards can bring together as many as three or four representatives from each customer, including IT people, sales reps, and business development analysts. "We like to have them fight it out--the business side and the IT side," says Barbry McGann, PeopleSoft's vice president of CRM product management. "It's tough when just one or the other shows up." Danielle Wanderer, group product manager at RightNow, says the customers invited to the board "have some strategy about the initiatives they're planning." And Oracle looks "for people who are pioneering in certain areas...[but] we want them to be representative of our installed base," says Alan Fletcher, vice president of application development operations. They need to be "the right companies, and the right people from those companies." The freewheeling nature of some boards adds to their success. "Often the solution doesn't come out of the main conversation," Maxtor's Etherton says, but rather as an offshoot of open give-and-take. "Sometimes we leave that board not knowing what the final solution may be," he says. To that end CRM vendors with customer advisory boards seem to be giving their users a sense of empowerment. "I do feel like I really have a say in what comes out," Pella's Lancaster says. In other words, be careful what you ask for...you just might get it.
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