Social CRM: 3 stages of Social integration within sales force automation

(note: this piece was originally written for the Orange Business Services blog)

A couple of days ago, I was able to talk to Jan Sysmans, director of product marketing at Sugar CRM in Cupertino, California. Jan was able to take me through a major evolution of its CRM systems in order to incorporate social media. This is more than just about adding a few features to a piece of software, it is an entire change in the approach to sales force automation and how salespeople do business; let’s see why and how.

Those familiar with orange business TV may have already had the opportunity to watch our video interview with Larry Augustin, recorded a little bit earlier this year, which introduced the famous open source CRM platform to our listeners. This time, we pursued our discussions with the execs from the Silicon Valley firm in order to analyse how Social was transforming CRM. In just the space of six months, the entire landscape of customer relationship management and sales force automation in particular, has changed dramatically. The intrusion of social media in our lives, both professional and personal, has brought in new requirements in the traditional landscape of sales force automation. It used to be sufficient for sales people to keep track of deals, prospective deals and customers in one’s own proprietary database, but it’s no longer the case. Customers want to be talked to in many different ways nowadays. At a time when e-mailing performance is slowing down, mostly in the US, customers want to be talked to through various channels and don’t be mistaken: they are the ones who want to be calling the shots, not you. Here is what is happening with regard to the integration of social within CRM systems as seen through the eyes of one of the leading experts in that area.

defining what Social CRM really is

“A lot of people talk about social CRM, but few know what it means” Jan Sysmans told us when he introduced to us this major shift in the way that sales force automation is designed at this very moment. There are three ways in which social can be introduced within customer relationship management Jan said, on top of the manual access to information from various sources:

  1. what my customers are saying about themselves on various social media platforms: this is the listening component
  2. there is the way that your customers want to be talked to: this is the talking component
  3. there is the way that your customers want to be engaged with: this is an engaging component

(see CRM adoption curve on the lefthand side, click to enlarge)

listening

One of the most important things you must do in sales is not talk but listen. Listening is important because it enables you to understand your customer’s interests and pain points. Listening used to be done through face-to-face interviews or telephone conversations; and it still is. But they are new ways of listening to customers nowadays. One can be linked to one’s customers and customers’ company pages through LinkedIn for instance, or their company twitter account, or even each individual person’s twitter account. The possibilities are numerous; and each individual or company chooses their own preferred channel. Some prefer to use Facebook, others favour twitter. And one needs also to look at blogs. As you can see, there is a variety of ways in which you can gain insight about people and companies. But the real issue is how you keep your salespeople focused on raising dollars and not be distracted from their main tasks by having to look at umpteen different sources of information.

The answer to that question is “by moving that information to the CRM application, because this is how people stay focused on their sales job” Jan added.

This is why Sugar CRM has developed a way of bringing the information back into the CRM platform which is populated by sales people. The latter can attach blogs, RSS feeds, Twitter handles, and LinkedIn addresses etc. to a customer/company profile. This is still not real-time though, Jan admitted, but this is the way forward for getting the information through different channels. The challenge though it’s about how to try and make this information relevant to the sales person/company. Chances are that for the foreseeable future, human intervention will still be required in that area.

talking

Now that we know the best ways of getting information about our clients and employees in order to keep track of their needs and pain points, how do we talk to them? This is probably an area in which changes are the most fundamental. All sorts of customers want to be talked to in different ways. Some prefer LinkedIn, some prefer e-mail or Twitter direct messages or even Facebook chat or instant messaging etc; the list is endless. But how do you know who prefers what and how do you treat track of all this information?

This is something your sales force automation system should help you with, by telling you which preferred channel your customer likes best; e.g. if you write to him via Facebook will he complain that he prefers another channel? this area is fundamental, there used to be mostly one and only way of communicating with customers, and this has been true for the past 15 years: e-mail. Now, e-mail is no longer sufficient.

E-mail boxes are cluttered, most managers’ time is taken up by e-mail tasks (40% of their time on average) and they want to get rid of this as much as they can. Social media can help them in that direction by bringing alternative ways of communicating. Having said that, “one has to avoid the snowball effect” to put it in the words of Jan Sysmans, that is to say communicating with customers in 10 different ways because one doesn’t quite know which one is their preferred channel. This is the most critical challenge awaiting us in the near future of social CRM, and I do not think that we have seen the bottom of it.

engaging

Engaging with customers is the ultimate goal of sales force automation. Listening is good, talking is good, but how do you transform all these discussions into dollars and cents? You want to keep track of all this information and record it within your sales force automation database, is the answer. It used to be easy: a sales person would have a face-to-face or telephone conversation with a client, he would take notes, and then it would transcribe his notes into his saleforce automation system in order to keep track of them. Now it is more difficult because this conversation may actually take place online on a different system: it could be on LinkedIn for instance which is probably the preferred channel for businessmen. Campaigns can also be carried out through Facebook and LinkedIn and other channels as well. In this area, the objective is to build a central repository in which all conversations will be kept, keeping track of everything which has been said and exchanged between customers and sales representatives.

Sugar CRM is still investigating and allocating more resources to that project. This is no small task, because, we are no longer working on processes but, as Thingamy’s Sig Rinde would have it, “barely repeatable processes”.

As one can see, we’ve only just seen the beginning of the integration of Social within sales force automation. This is no small change in the way that CRM is done but a major shift which will redefine the landscape of customer relationship management. Sugar CRM’s Jan Sysmans admits that there is still a lot of work to be done in that area, but the vision is right and the shift is fundamental.Tools like LinkedIn have been around for more than seven years and they are entering their mutuality phase, it is fundamental for businesses that all this information be kept centrally both for the benefit of the Sales person and that of the company which employs them. In a sense, services like 123people have already tried to bridge part of this gap, now the more serious challenge is how to merge this information back into the SFA platform.

Lastly, I would add that in my eyes, this change is as fundamental as the introduction of sales force automation itself, to which I personally participated at the beginning of the 1990s, when we discovered that we could no longer rely on people’s memories and people’s notebooks. Yet, automating “barely repeatable processes” is no small task.

on the agenda

Soon to come: Sugar CRM will announce a tighter integration with IBM on the hardware and software sides at Lotusphere in January 2011. The real issues with regard to sales force automation nowadays is how to access customer data wherever they are, on the road, at work or working from the home office. This is why Sugar CRM is also working with appcelerator.com to port sales force automation access to mobiles. Working on the titanium platform enables Sugar CRM to develop applications once and deploy them on multiple platforms: the iPhone version has already been developed and its android counterpart will be announced in April next year.

about Jan Sysmans

Jan Sysmans is Director of Product Marketing at SugarCRM where he focuses on pricing, packaging, competitive analysis, product strategy and developing and evangelizing SugarCRM’s open source and SaaS solutions in the marketplace. A recognized industry thought leader, Jan spent over six years at Webex where he focused on business continuity, ease of use and viral adoption of its products. Jan also served as Marketing Chair for the SaaS Executive Council, an industry initiative aimed at promoting Software-as-a-Service solutions. A native of Belgium, he received his BS from the EHSAL School of Business and his MBA from ICHEC-MIME in Brussels.

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