Leveraging CRM in the Face of COVID-19
I’m writing this in late March, and all of us woke up today in a much different situation than we found ourselves when we started the year. Back in January we were booking flights, hotels, and meetings with our customers and prospects. Most people had held their sales kickoff meetings, territories were realigned, marketing teams were busy executing their campaigns and planning for events and conferences… and then came COVID-19. And now, as we sit here, the coronavirus has had a seismic impact on our way of life and how business gets done. In this appropriately named Tipping Point column, I wanted to talk about how CRM and related platforms are having a positive effect on companies and the people they serve.
Although we have had other crises in the age of CRM, like Y2K and the 2008 financial crisis, the coronavirus pandemic, with its associated challenges, is completely unique. Fortunately, CRM platforms and their capabilities have evolved to address some of these scenarios. When we look back at the winners and losers in business from 2020, many firms will credit their CRM investments for their performance. So let’s break down the acronym “CRM” and talk about how firms are leveraging technology as it relates to customers, relationships, and management.
There are typically three types of customers that any organization will deal with on a day-to-day basis: internal customers, external customers, and prospective customers. The internal customers are teams of people that rely on each other. External customers may be distribution or sales channels. And our retail and business customers pay the bills and keep the metaphorical lights on. Regardless of the types of customers for which you are responsible, it takes people to serve and sell these constituents, and CRM is empowering them like never before.
One way that CRM helps our internal customers is by providing the critical infrastructure that enable collaboration, workflows to ensure that nothing falls through the cracks, and an audit trail for tracking how well we follow through on customer needs. At a time when people are working remotely, these capabilities are needed now more than ever. And collaboration tools embedded in CRM enable centralizing streams of discussions in a way that makes people more productive and efficient.
Another way CRM has evolved is the proliferation of online communities. The importance of communities is that they enable people to connect virtually in a meaningful way that can supplement or improve upon the traditional interactions through phone and email. At a time when many companies have been forced to scramble as their call centers and support centers are now closed or operating with skeleton staffs, these portals enable customers to support each other, and they provide you with the ability to maintain communication and information sharing between your distributors and your sales channels.
Finally, CRM is providing a valuable assist to customer service. As your customers’ service needs evolve because they are working remotely, your ability to service them will have an impact on customer satisfaction and customer retention. When your teams are forced to work remotely, CRM can provide access to critical information needed to resolve customer issues. While many firms thought that they were prepared prior to COVID-19, the current business environment has created openings for many innovations, and artificial intelligence (AI) is chief among them. Many CRM platforms now provide internal and external bots, built with AI, that can handle a high volume of self-service requests, get better over time, and free up your overworked staff to focus on more complicated requests.
The ability to understand your firm’s relationships, leverage them, and create new business opportunities was one of the original ideas and a central theme in the creation of customer relationship management. In a time when face-to-face, in-person interactions have all but disappeared, most companies are now looking at their CRM platforms as mission-critical applications. If you just think about the fire drill many people experienced trying to get communications out to business contacts at the beginning of this pandemic, it was instructive to see which companies were well equipped and which took weeks to create a meaningful list of business contacts.
There are many lessons learned in recent times when it comes to relationships, and in my consulting with various organizations, a few central themes have emerged that are impacting CRM and the ability to get business done. First, many organizations have had CRM solutions for many years but are now realizing that the accuracy and depth of their contact data is highly degraded. More alarming, however, is the fact that many contacts are simply missing from CRM systems. And for those contacts that were entered in CRM, the information can be anecdotal, making it hard to gauge the relationships.
These challenges are daunting, but we are seeing that organizations are shifting their priorities and budgets to double down on CRM tools that support solving them. For instance, marketing departments are now focusing on digital and virtual events, whose effectiveness is diminished when the accuracy on contacts is only 50 percent to 70 percent. These departments are now shifting funds allocated for face-to-face events and travel to tools that will automate and improve CRM data.
AI platforms are providing some of this much-needed relief. Capabilities include automating contact creation, enriching and cleaning existing contacts, measuring relationships, and providing customer sentiment data and next best actions for sales and business development teams. The value of pursuing these capabilities is key for companies that want to distinguish themselves in a virtual world. In uncertain times, most people will steer their business in the direction of people they know and trust.
As all these changes to our business ecosystem impact every company in every industry, one of the biggest challenges leaders face is how to manage their business. Management can only be effective when it has visibility into operations. Without visibility—especially considering the challenges inherent with a newly remote workforce—managers and executives could be forced to allocate resources or create strategies without being able to see the effects of those decisions.
CRM systems provide leaders and managers with three big advantages. First is the ability to integrate information. Many companies have invested heavily in the ability to bring together disparate information from across the organization. Centralizing information and presenting it in ways that drive new business, improve customer service, and empower people provides management with a strategic weapon.
Next, CRM platforms can be accessed in any location via any device, giving managers a uniquely valuable management capability. Because COVID-19 forced many organizations to virtualize in days, many people are working on personal devices or without the same resources they would have at the office. Executives are no different, and being able to get insights with dashboards that include key performance indicators is critical.
Third, CRM can enable leaders to adapt to quickly changing business conditions. Most platforms have an extensive ecosystem of extensible solutions that can be implemented remotely and provide new capabilities needed by your organization. In some cases it might be something as simple as a solution to exchange contracts electronically, and in other cases it might be the need for a human capital management (HCM) solution to deal with a remote workforce.
People are our most valuable asset, and we realize that more than ever today. And while the way we engage and work with each other is evolving since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, we are seeing executives take actions that will help their businesses come through these challenges. Fortunately, CRM platforms have evolved to become mission-critical and are making a difference in the ways we find and keep our customers.
Danny Estrada is director, enterprise solutions, at Introhive, and has spent more than 25 years helping organizations implement and adopt CRM platforms. Throughout his career, he has been an author and thought leader on adoption, as well as a speaker for many industry leaders like Salesforce.com and Microsoft. His experience includes leading a CRM consulting practice and serving as a management consultant across hundreds of CRM implementations. Danny also holds an executive MBA from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.