Nimble, Salesforce, Dynamics… there are more CRM services out there than you can shake a large address book at yet none of them gets the basics right for me: relationship management.

CRM is a discipline rather than a type of software you buy and stands for “Customer (or contact) relationship management”. When I speak to people about CRM most seem to think of a piece of software or service, and few understand it as a business process or discipline.

Which may explain why there are no good relationship management tools in my opinion because they all focus on doing management of data. Some try to weave an experience which is focussed on an outcome — for example closing deals –but I have yet to find one that does it for relationships.

Nimble for example is quite good at getting data from social media and weaving things like contacts, events and tasks together into a useful sales tool. Dynamics is huge and very powerful, thus complex and harder to use than most. It’s a strong proposition for any enterprise but unfocused and outside the budgets of most small to medium sized enterprises.

There are many others, too many to mention in this short article. If you feel like I left out your favourite, please let me know in a comment how it performs for you.

Back to relationships

My first principle for CRM is that it is about people — individuals even. My relationship maybe with a supplier or partner or customer but really I am dealing with a person on the other end, not a machine. These people have the habit of not staying in the same place or role and often move. It’s useful to know this because you probably have both invested some time in getting to know each other’s business and found ways to work well together. When one of you moves on, this smoothly running affair is put at risk.

To mitigate against this loss of insight and potentially upsetting a well-running process, we need to become aware of an impending change and transfer the knowledge and relationship to a new person. The former should happen automatically by way of conversation between the two people, however, it should also be noted as a key event in a system that supports this relationship for the benefit of other parties involved and improved context. The latter requires the new person to easily understand what this relationship means and how it works well. Try doing that in a CRM right now and you’ll be left with notes and custom profile fields — again just data.

I have found nothing in any CRM service thus far that helps me note key information in a meaningful or even useful way. Yes, you can add custom fields to profiles but that’s usually buried and not tied to anything. Let’s put it on the profile card, use scoring to providing key visual indicators and feed these into reports or alerts. Perhaps even automate things and pro-actively deliver valuable signals to me in a timely manner.

Connecting the dots

We also need to understand connections between people and other entities. We need to easily see what these entities mean in the context of what we are doing and make any potentially valuable information discoverable. For example, I run a consultancy business called “be braver”, while also working at Cranfield University full-time and am involved in not-for-profit events like the MK Hackathon and MK LitFest. I also actively participate in the local tech community through participation in Made in MK meet-ups and MK Geek Night (MK stands for Milton Keynes in case you wondered). Now somebody at Cranfield may only see the Cranfield connection and not anything else unless they feel like digging through my social media or connect on LinkedIn. They could be missing out a lot here and when you are not directly connected yet, it’s harder to find this out.

It’d be handy for a CRM tool to surface the wealth of related and sometimes non-professional interests, skills and participation in events as they can provide context or added value. For example, I found out one of my colleagues is a marshal at Silverstone during F1 and other car racing events. I love F1 and this was a valuable nugget of information for me. It can help build my relationship as well as potentially connect to others in my non-professional network that has related interests, outside the main purpose of our connection.

Becoming pro-active

Social media connections in CRM tools are basic, they only surface raw data and few — like Nimble — try to extrapolate ‘signals’ intelligence from this, which becomes actionable insight. Machine learning can really help us here, so long as the user has made this data available to us of course, we should be able to use it to surface key information we may be interested in. This requires us to do the same and the machine to learn from us to understand what’s relevant or maybe useful. Facebook calls this the social graph and it’s used for advertising purposes primarily. I think that’s a shame as not everything is focussed on sales or advertising. Relationship building is much more nuanced and careful than shoving an ad into somebodies face. It’s downright wasteful to just use these capabilities in this manner.

My ideal tool will help me plan and manage by doing a lot of both for me, with suggestions of when to take action or alert me to new opportunities to develop my relationships. It should help me manage my stakeholder matrixes by setting automatic reminders of when to catch-up with people based on an understand what they may be up to. If they are outside my organisation this may be harder to achieve but machine learning can pick up on queues and behaviours from other sources which could be freely available.

It’s a long shot but even a basic understanding of a CRM tool of what I am trying to accomplish outside of building sales pipelines, providing customer service or marketing myself would be very refreshing indeed.

Photo credit: Arthur Poulin via Unsplash.com


Also published on Medium.

Article by Axel Segebrecht

I see myself as a product owner in Scrum terms or more generally as a senior project manager who shapes and realises the client's end product. This can be either with a consultancy or directly working with clients in a contract role.

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