• April 1, 2012
  • By Brent Leary, cofounder and partner, CRM Essentials

The Fast and the Curious

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The speed at which customers are changing their behaviors and expectations is unprecedented. And the faster they adopt technology, the more curious they are to see what they can do with it. Need proof?

  • On Christmas Day 2011, 7 percent of total online sales were made via iPad.
  • The number of adults in the United States who own tablets and e-readers nearly doubled from mid-December 2011 to early January 2012, according to a Pew Research study.
  • Just one week before Christmas, one quarter of American consumers had not yet begun their holiday shopping, according to <em>Consumer Reports</em>. When they did shop, it was for more of these mobile devices.

In short, a device that is just two years old drove 7 percent of all online purchases on a day that most people wouldn't have even imagined shopping just a few short years ago.

These points illustrate the dramatic changes in consumer behavior. Small businesses must change as well. Below are examples of successful approaches in this Age of Acceleration.

It Takes a Platform

Nimble is a Web-based application aimed at small businesses that ties together management of contacts, calendar and activities, and direct/indirect communications—along with social listening and collaboration—to create the foundation for social relationship management.

Nimble was built with two things in mind: the API and the community. The API was built first, then used to create the actual application. This was done so Nimble could tell the community of developers it was courting that they would be able to build their apps using the same API Nimble was built with. By giving the community access to the API up front, it was thought they would be motivated to create and extend the application more than the company could do on its own.

We've seen how communities have spurred the gaming and software industries. More and more, we're seeing companies in other segments realize they need a community around them in order to compete. And while Nimble focused on APIs as way to attract its target community, the approach to creating a business with this philosophy at its core can help accelerate and scale customer engagement far beyond the software industry.

Gamifying the Customer Experience

Before Desk.com was bought by Salesforce.com, it was a startup called Assistly—a cloud-based customer service application helping SMBs simplify the task of responding to customer requests from social and traditional channels.

Assistly's pricing model was attractive to SMBs. The first user (full-time agent) could use the system for free, with every additional full-time agent costing $49 per month. Assistly charged part-time agents one dollar per hour of usage. If five part-time agents worked a total of 80 hours, they were charged a total of $80. That's a big discount.

Assistly also offered an onboarding "to-do" list that companies could use to help them configure their system, which included setting up email boxes, writing macros, writing articles to fill out Knowledgebase, and adding Twitter accounts and Facebook pages.

As customers and agents completed these tasks, Assistly gave them bonus flex hours—a nice gamification twist that created a win-win scenario. This worked so well it continues today at Salesforce.com with Desk.com.

The Need for Speed…and Flexibility

Small businesses need to employ up-to-date tactics and processes more closely aligned with changing customer patterns, and deliver them in a flexible manner.

Cloud-based services provide this flexibility. And these solutions are designed to make fast adjustments to processes, and to access these updated processes immediately from any device with a browser.

But SMBs shouldn't forget the social side of creating their business foundation, as that's every bit as critical as the technology stuff in the clouds. By following the takeaways here, SMBs have a fighting chance to keep up with today's empowered customer.

Brent Leary is cofounder of CRM Essentials, an Atlanta-based CRM advisory firm focused on small and midsize businesses. He is also the coauthor of Barack 2.0: Social Media Lessons for Small Business.

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