One of the trends in CRM over the past decade has been self-service—putting more capability in the hands of customers so they can take care of their own needs. Every software update or new product, it seems, produces more ways to let customers explore their own curiosities, solve their own problems, and—increasingly—make their own buying choices.
I have always been generally in favor of self-serve commerce. Not just e-commerce, mind you; everything from grocery shopping to selecting options on a new car can and often should be under the buyer's control, with little interference from salespeople. My reason? Annoyance. I don't want to be bothered by anybody unless I need help. Nor do I want to be influenced or "sold" unless I'm in real need of guidance.
Although not uncommon, I'm afraid this sales-free outlook on sales doesn't fit in well with the CRM (sales, marketing, and customer service) story. Everything I said above is true enough, but it's also true that CRM is built to drive sales, and there will always be salespeople responsible for that aspect of business.
Now, if you've been reading this column for any length of time, you'll know that I have something of a prejudice against salespeople and the art of the deal. I have said controversial and unflattering things about salespeople, which added an interesting layer to every feature article I wrote about sales techniques and technology, let me tell you. While I'm not taking any of it back, I understand and appreciate the value that good sellers can bring to a situation. Many products aren't (and can't be) sold without salespeople. Just ask a salesperson. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)
The prejudice I hold against salespeople (mostly the bad ones) isn't solely my own. Most non-CRM people refer to help at or near the point of sale as customer service. This view is compounded by the way customer service agents are often required to serve as sales assets, cross-selling and upselling customers who reach them in the contact center. Many agents are better sellers than actual salespeople, because they're skilled at listening to complaints and needs and doing what they can to satisfy them—and if that's best done by selling the customer something, then it might not seem to the customer like selling at all.
The most obvious case where salespeople are necessary is with highly complex purchases, especially B2B. You don't want to pick and configure your factory machinery or medical robotics from a list, any more than you'd buy a suit off the rack and wear it without tailoring. High technology, software, and similar products require input from the seller and the buyer, because the seller will have knowledge and experience the buyer can't match, despite the research tools, social networks, and suchlike he might access.
But whether I like it or not, salespeople have a place in retail and other primarily B2C realms. Even when we don't want to be explicitly sold to, we'll often want advice or have questions that our own pre-purchase research (if any) doesn't answer. A salesperson who follows me around the department store saying "That would look great on you" about every item of clothing I brush against (and I have had this happen) is a sale killer, but somebody who can help me choose between A and B—or tell me honestly that neither looks great and then draw my attention to C, which I missed—is a treasure who will make me pull the trigger on a purchase. Again, some mislabel this as customer service. Fine, but then selling is also service to the customer.
Most sales-related technology in the CRM industry is about reporting and management. Its purpose is to provide insight into the revenue stream and quickly match salespeople with prospects. But the fact is, CRM is an integrated discipline, and every marketing tool or customer service widget contributes to the sale by driving us toward the opportunity to buy. The most powerful sales tool is the one that tells a salesperson the one thing she needs to say to make a purchasing decision feel right. It doesn't matter which part of CRM we call it—it's making the sale.
Marshall Lager is the managing principal of Third Idea Consulting, dedicated to finding the best way to move businesses and customers forward. Engage him at www.3rd-idea.com, or www.twitter.com/Lager.