• October 3, 2022
  • By Brian Solis, vice president, global innovation, Salesforce, Henry King, innovation and transformation strategist, Salesforce

Reinforcing the ‘R’ in CRM

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CRM HAS BEEN AROUND for a long time; the principles of digital CRM date back to at least the late 1980s with the release of ACT! So, after 35 or so years and in light of all the shiny objects in front of technology and business executives today, perhaps CRM is starting to show its age. But rather than retiring it, it’s actually time to breathe new life into it. In this digital-first world, customer relationship management as a platform and as a springboard for business and digital transformation might be more important than ever.

So what is the future of CRM? To answer that, we first need to put CRM in the context of the true state and future of business. According to a recent Harvard Business Review Analytical Services report, customer experience is priority No. 1 among executives in every industry around the world. But the promise of the “R” in CRM is twofold.

In its research, HBRAS identified two sides of successful CX: (1) data-driven insights and (2) insight-driven engagement. The report found, however, that just 17 percent of executives say their organizations are either excellent in both insight and engagement or excellent in one and good in the other. What’s more, only 15 percent of companies have a single view of customer data and the organizational structure to make use of those insights.

While the intent is there, companies must re-imagine a unity between CRM, operations, and a future motivating state for what customer relationships should look like and how technology enables that vision to come to life.


Great companies are themselves built through relationships, the word “company” meaning people who break bread together (from the Latin “com” which means “with” and “pan” which means “bread”). And so companies can’t truly exist without customers or without people who break bread together (the employees).

Businesses must immediately place the focus back on relationships between companies and their customers, employees, business partners, communities, and the environment. The goal and future of CRM, therefore, is to enable the nurturing, management, and transformation of all these relationships by connecting the inside of the company to the outside, which is where business actually happens in ways that are valuable to everyone involved. In other words, it’s time to reinvigorate CRM as a platform for innovation, to reinforce the ever-growing importance of relationships to all businesses, connected through digital and operational transformation.

Relationships are human; they’re not numbers, conversions, metrics, data, or cost centers. Let’s start by recognizing that the word “customer” is itself a relational word. And experience is one that’s emotional. A customer is someone who has already paid for a service or product from another person or from a company. Experiences are emotional reactions in a moment, and how someone feels usually dictates what a customer thinks, does next, and ultimately recalls about those engagements with your company. That’s the definition of customer experience. And customers now expect businesses to become more personal. If they don’t, customers are willing to walk away.

In its latest “State of the Connected Customer” report, Salesforce found that 71 percent of customers said that they switched brands at least once this past year. The vast majority of customers also said that they want to feel an emotional connection to brands. They also want you to know them at every step and to deliver personal, productive experiences as needed. In its research, Salesforce also learned that three out of four customers expect businesses to understand their unique needs and expectations, and two of three expect companies to anticipate their needs.

This isn’t just about becoming customer-centric; it’s about operations, data, processes, and people, to anticipate and deliver the experiences that customers want and the engagement that builds relationships in real time.

The timing is exactly right for digital and business transformations to prioritize relationships. We call this relationship transformation, or RTX, and it concentrates on the why and how of change. Think of it as a human-centered prelude to shape digital transformation.

This reframing of digital transformation around relationships is more inclusive and purposeful as it embraces all corporate functions and puts humans and human outcomes first. All executives and employees should be able to describe aspirational customer relationships as if singing off the same sheet of music. That takes design, development, and empowerment across the organization. Relationships are now the responsibility of everyone in the organization and the principal means by which organizational culture and business ecosystems get built.

Relationships are the very essence of successful businesses, and it’s what happens behind the scenes and on the front lines—with a little help from data input, AI, automation, and human engagement—that shapes the sum of customer experiences. This is the Ctrl-Alt-Delete moment for CRM to reboot as a platform, a human-centered business operating system, for unifying organizations around customer and employee relationships.


Relationships aren’t solely defined by ingesting data into disparate systems of record across business functions throughout the organization. Nor are they shaped by the acts of connecting silos of data to various systems of engagement. Instead, relationships are defined by articulating what customer interactions should look and feel like throughout the customer journey, supported by organizational capacity and with optimized touchpoints and employees’ ability to foster relationships as intended. This gives purpose to any CRM system, beyond technology, to develop human-centered strategies and processes that enhance the business value chain from insights to engagement to experiences to relationships.

If we’re serious that relationships are the cornerstone of all business, then we’re going to need to improve CRM in at least five important ways to future-proof companies while making them more human:

1. Enable the future state of relationships between business and customer, business and employee, and employee and customer. This is the basis and prerequisite for developing a deep corporate culture while also guiding purposeful digital and business transformation. Everyone who comes in contact with a relationship-centric organization feels it. It humanizes and connects the dots between culture, CRM as a platform for relationships, and the operational ecosystem that fosters relationships through technology and engagement inside and outside the company. As a result, customers develop personal relationships with these companies. So do employees.

2. Improve/transform the quality of relationships by building trust and making it easier for all customer-facing professionals and touchpoints to foster and nurture those relationships. CRM should be used to help make it easier, faster, and better for customers to get stuff done while actually personalizing engagement across their journeys and adding to the perceived value and memory of their experiences.

3. Extend the scope/range of relationships by building ecosystems that include business partners, customers, and communities of practice. Be accountable for the success of all stakeholders. Enable effective all-way communication and collaboration across the ecosystem. Measure engagement, sentiment, and outcomes and how they contribute to the definition of future-state relationships.

4. Increase the duration or depth of relationships by supporting the customer across more of their journey, going end to end and defining a relationship orientation rather than just a journey orientation. This is truly a differentiator. With CRM as a platform for building and unifying relationships, customers and employees feel like they can trust the organization to support them.

5. Plan ahead and support the changing nature of relationships as decentralization influences web3, digital wallets, tokens, etc. The goal is to enablee consumers to become owners/stakeholders and take control of their portable, interoperable identities.


CRM gives purpose to your work and to change itself. The role of CRM is about going back to basics while also enabling businesses to rethink the connection between technology and employee and customer experiences. By aligning a system of record and engagement with people, process, and insights, meaningful relationships become an outcome.

Embracing a renewed mind-set around CRM will bring customers and employees closer to the center of your enterprise.

By defining the future state of relationships, executives can re-imagine the role of relationship platforms, innovative technologies, data and insights, operations and processes, and company culture. It will give employees purpose and meaning in their work and will help them feel like they belong and that they’re part of a winning team. Customers too, will feel cared for, feel like they’re part of a community, and this will only inspire loyalty and deepen trust. 

Brian Solis is vice president, global innovation, at Salesforce. He is also a digital anthropologist, a futurist, a best-selling author, and an international keynote speaker. Henry King is an innovation and transformation strategist at Salesforce. He is also an author and adjunct professor in innovation strategy.

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