Flip the B2C Employee Value Chain with CRM

There are countless vendors, analysts, and pundits (are there still pundits?) talking about the "age of the customer." In a lot of ways, this is the age of the customer, but the same technology and social trends that have enabled it are really about individual empowerment.

Think about it. Today, we as individuals are able to have more of an impact on our world than ever. So many times, a single action, speech, complaint, etc., that would have disappeared into thin air just a few years ago shines a light on social wrongs, changes global consciousness, and, in our industry, wreaks havoc on major brands' marketing departments.

For the past several years, much of the development and attention around this individual empowerment has been focused on customers. The notion of more empowered, educated, and connected customers sent shockwaves through the B2B and B2C worlds. And companies (especially B2C brands) bent over backward to quickly address customers across social and mobile platforms.

This was the right thing to do. Customers are individuals, and we should try our best to provide relevant messages and personalized service as much as possible.

But what about employees, namely those that touch the customer on a daily basis? What tools have they really been given? As the front line to customer perceptions for many B2C brands, the in-store sales clerk seems to be the lowest link on the corporate food chain at B2C companies. Low pay, little recognition, little room for advancement—and usually few tools to actually do the job well.

Results from Forrester's Business Technographics Application and Collaboration Workforce Survey, Q4 2013, shed light on the growing need and desire among retail workers to have access to CRM and other empowering tools via tablets or similar devices. According to the research, 44 percent of information workers in retail sales engage with more than 25 people per week. But while most (nearly 96 percent) may touch the CRM, only 18 percent use tablets as part of their job.

But, what if we flipped this value chain? No, I am not saying we should pay in-store part-time help like CEOs. Rather, I am advocating equipping front-line customer-facing brand reps with better, modern tools to actually engage more effectively anytime, anywhere (and, yes, that means not just while working in-store).

The CRM tools of yesterday did not fit well into B2C usage paradigms. They were unwieldy and expensive tools that could potentially capture data from a point of sale—but could not equip the employee with information and guidance at the point of interaction. That is changing.

Today, tablets can be made available to every single in-store employee, for example. And even in B2B scenarios, BYOD and other initiatives let businesses give outside sales reps highly usable, effective CRM tools they can access via tablets.

The cost to build these kinds of systems is a fraction of what it would have been five or 10 years ago—if you leverage the right components. But apart from the massive reduction in hardware and software costs we've seen, it simply makes sense to empower the front line. Look at the military—the lowest-paid soldiers ("grunts") are often behind the wheel of multimillion-dollar tanks and work with fantastic technology as part of their jobs. Why should retail be any different?

Today's uber-competitive B2C marketplace means brands MUST differentiate in new ways. Competing on price isn't going to cut it—brands need to create unique experiences, and be consistent in providing them. Equipping every front-line associate with the proper tools, data, and policies to empower them to make a difference can produce amazing results.

Martin Schneider is head of product evangelism at SugarCRM. He is a former industry analyst covering CRM with 451 Research.

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