• July 1, 2013
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

Why CRM Is a Balancing Act

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Sometimes it seems CRM vendors are a contradictory lot. On one hand, they provide thought leadership for the future of customer interaction, and invent new ways to provide better outcomes for the parties on either side of the transaction. On the other hand, they use up a lot of air telling prospects that CRM software is not a waste of time and money, and convincing them to move off of homegrown, spreadsheet-driven systems. I wonder: If CRM is so necessary and so advanced, why are so many businesses still in the dark?

It's an easy question to ask (although it took me a thick introductory paragraph to do it), but not so easy to answer. I'll try anyway, because otherwise this will be a pretty short and dull column. The issue is one of managing expectations at both extremes.

Think about it. There are eleventy trillion businesses (give or take a few) in the United States alone. Some of them are long established firms, some are just starting out, and all of them have different needs and levels of sophistication. Older businesses can sometimes get stuck using old or makeshift technology because they don't have the resources to make a timely change. The newer and smaller companies might not have the experience to know that they need something better than contact management and spreadsheets—and those that manage to survive have to learn.

Not every potential CRM customer is in such a position, though. Many have risen above unsatisfactory practices and technology and can take whatever new awesomeness the vendors have to offer. More importantly, they have realized that their customers are always hungry for whatever advantages they can get.

For the former group of customers, a simple message is usually best, since they need a good deal of hand-holding. Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke famously said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." (Google "Clarke's three laws" for more.) This holds true for unsophisticated CRM users; they might be enchanted by the possibilities of a tricked-out system, but might also be scared of change, or of the effort it would take to update their stack. If it looks like magic, it's not something they can handle.

For the latter, there must be a cutting-edge story. Businesses need what they need, and must be confident that their CRM provider is capable. In addition, the continued evolution of CRM means that there's always something to add to the system—and to the branding surrounding it. No user wants to hear, "We're CRM-Co, and we cover the basics." It's not a message that evokes much confidence.

CRM isn't the only place where we see this. Hospitals do something similar. In this case, the two messages are technology and compassion. On the one hand, they have all the expensive machines that go "Ping!" to eradicate your tumor, clean out your arteries, or deliver your baby in 30 minutes or less or it's free. On the other, they tout compassionate nurses, caring doctors, and the Patients' Bill of Rights to try to make you less scared of what might be a one-way trip. It's a clever balancing act that most seem to pull off quite well. That hospitals even need to advertise is something I still find odd, but I'm weird that way.

Whether it's hospital care, CRM systems, or something else that addresses a broad range of needs, the vendor has to have both kinds of answers available. They're not contradictory, they're complementary.

Marshall Lager is the founder of social CRM consultancy Third Idea Consulting, and is adept at speaking out of both sides of his mouth. Contact him at marshall@3rd-idea.com or www.twitter.com/Lager.

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