How Does Employee Age Impact CRM Usage?
Having spent more than two decades neck deep in customer relationship management platforms, I have seen just about everything and been asked things that would make you cock your head like a dog hearing it’s time for a walk. Occasionally, as readers of my columns are aware, the topics I raise have come to the surface because of recurring conversations with clients in boardrooms across the country. As CRM continues to evolve, thanks to constant innovation, companies likewise continue to evolve their thinking on the ways they should approach it. And one topic that has come up a lot is this: How should the age of a business’s population of users influence the design of its CRM platform?
When many CRM deployments were initially planned or implemented, the focus was on features and function. Today, CRM has become the operational heartbeat of many organizations, thus expanding the number of people inside a given company who have access to and use these platforms for an ever-expanding number of use cases. In many cases it has gone well, but in other cases there continue to be challenges related to adoption and use. It’s within this context that questions related to users’ age and generation come up more and more often.
CHALLENGES WITH PROFESSIONAL SERVICES
Let’s start with the most challenging CRM scenario I see: that of professional services firms. With these firms, we see this combination: older traditional sales responsibilities and much younger professionals who are involved in heavy engagement with customers and sometimes prospects. The inherent challenges here have little to do with the actual design and more of the ancillary things that persist in these types of organizations. Roles and responsibilities, technology avoidance, historical biases, and the cost-benefits of the time investment all contribute to older employees’ lack of CRM adoption. And guess what? No matter how “easy and simple” you make CRM to use, this group isn’t likely to convert.
But all hope is not lost. Assuming CRM is going to be around 10 years from now, eventually the older population will be people who grew up with technology and are more reliant on and accepting of CRM. So you architect for the younger population and augment for your more seasoned and resistant staff. There are two interesting undercurrents in these organizations. The older owners and shareholders of professional services firms have seen the data that CRM works for them, but many of them don’t buy it. And because many of them built books of business doing things differently, they inherently push back. And that is OK. We often see that if these folks have other employees inputting data for them into CRM for “visibility and reporting,” they’re less likely to be social blockers of the initiative, and CRM initiatives can then thrive.
The scenario described above relates to this one: when sales teams are on the younger side while the management and executive levels are very industry-experienced but somewhat technology averse. I have seen this many times in distribution and manufacturing and some older technology and services firms. This tends to happen when you have very mature organizations, and they have consistent turnover in the sales organization. Over time this produces a much younger sales head count and frontline sales management.
The gap created here is blamed on technology, but generational differences tend to be more at blame when executives and senior management claim that this or that technology is too difficult to use or understand to run the business. First, try to make sure you understand the disconnect and whether it is inherent to the platform you have deployed, or whether the challenges relate more to how and where the data to run the business is provided to users of the data as well as management of the business. Analytics and CRM are brother and sister at this point. Bigger picture, CRM needs to be valuable to the masses on the front line and those who manage them closely, which provides another vote for skewing the design for the younger user population.
Now let’s look at one final scenario: when a company has very seasoned and experienced team members and also a very seasoned and experienced management team. What is interesting here is that I have seen most initial systems designed to be workable for people according to their age and acceptance of technology. The theme is often “anything that makes my job easier, reporting faster, or keeps me in front of the customer and not doing administrative work.” So we start out with a fairly non-customized version of CRM, where standard reporting is usually great for senior management because it is light years better than what they were using before.
A HYBRID SOLUTION
There will come a day in most firms when ages and generations don’t align, and that brings to mind another potential structure for CRM design and architecture: a hybrid model where essentially two different user experiences are designed, based on a subset of features and/or data elements. One user experience encompasses a more advanced and aggressive CRM user approach, and the other a more passive structure with fewer bells and whistles for the less advanced or the technologically challenged user. Eventually management change might happen, or the seasoned talent might move on and be replaced by a younger crew. Either way, the entire population of users can be served based on their abilities and proclivities around technology.
The fact is that CRM is not a one-sizefits-all-venture. It requires not only constant evaluation of external influences but also the system’s impacts on your people and whether it fits their needs, regardless of their age and experience level. Having an established feedback channel and an operating model for governance over time are great guardrails to keep your CRM initiative on track.
Danny Estrada is vice president of consulting at Rare Karma. Throughout his career Estrada has been a CRM evangelist and expert at leveraging technology platforms to create business value. He has been a senior director at KPMG, thought leader for Salesforce and Microsoft, and published in an industry whitepaper by the Harvard Business Review. He also holds an executive MBA from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.