The CRM Elite: Communing with Customers

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CDW is no stranger to online communities. In six years working with vendor Communispace, the Vernon Hills, Ill.–based provider of technology products and services has fostered networking and focused on the customer voice. More recently, CDW looked to its customer community to strengthen sales strategies. CDW Sales Academy, a training program for account managers, became directly involved in that community in April 2009. 

The main goal was to gauge what messages customers prefer and what technology issues matter most. “We wanted…new account managers to [offer] a CDW value proposition in a way that was compelling to the customer,” says Calvin Vass, senior manager of research at CDW. “So we reached out to the community about how to most effectively make that first contact.” Clients are segmented into seven categories, each with its own community portal. Account managers are assigned a category, living and breathing that industry’s needs.

Because a technology manager—the typical CDW customer—can receive anywhere from two to 10 calls a day from various salespeople, CDW wanted to give its sales reps an edge: relevance. Within the CDW communities, members share thoughts on a variety of topics involving their buying habits, spending plans, and business challenges. The responses enable CDW sales teams to pitch products and services of higher relevance, giving account managers what CDW calls “the right message to lead with.” Now salespeople are better armed to make smarter calls. “It’s great when customers come to us through the Internet,” Vass says, “but it’s better when account managers reach out first and break into that account early enough to establish a relationship."

The communities—powered by Communispace, which was recently named one of CRM’s Service Rising Stars (March 2010)—are built by invitation. Repeat CDW customers are brought on with small monetary incentives and then asked to participate in surveys and give feedback. Much of the conversation is driven by CDW asking about buying plans and technology budgets, but community members often post about their own technology-related concerns and industry topics. “We get down to a granular level of detail that I think other companies aren’t able to,” Vass says.

Kevin Martensen, program manager of CDW market research, says that community members realize their purpose is partially to help CDW sell more. But the benefits are mutual: “Through their feedback we can develop products and services that fit [their] needs,” he says, adding that members love the opportunity to network with like-minded professionals. “The interaction and enthusiasm that members give is constantly surprising.” The communities are now as much a means of informing members about the technology field as they are a mechanism for CDW to better sell to those members. 

And better sell it has. According to early community-testing metrics, within months of the Sales Academy’s exposure to community practices, average CDW customer value increased by 17 percent. Not only were the customers called by account managers more likely to purchase, but they were buying more—and more frequently—than customers who converted from the CDW Web site. CDW says that the average customer converted by a Sales Academy–trained rep spends about $2,000 more a year than a CDW.com customer. 

A small Communispace team works alongside CDW to keep the communities lively with surveys, posts, and responses—and Martensen gushes about the relationship. “You need to look for who’s really the expert and who can help you out with the infrastructural assistance when talking about social media,” he says.

What began as a mere feedback loop has evolved to provide far deeper value. CDW is able to run reports based on its community-driven data and get insights in real time. One recent survey, for instance, asked about members’ technology spend for the rest of 2010—and gathered 533 responses in just one day. “Any time of day, there will be people in there,” Martensen says. “This has allowed us to truly be close to the customer.”  


  • Increased average customer value by 17 percent over the previous year.
  • Increased average revenue by 32 percent among newly acquired customers.   
  • Converted prospects handled by community-trained account managers at a rate 2 percent higher than the rate seen among Web-site visitors.
  • Saw community-trained account managers generate an average of $2,000 more per customer in annual revenue compared to customers serving themselves via the Web site.
  • Reduced to a matter of hours the time required to conduct surveys, run reports, and gather insights.

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