CRM 3.0: New Tactics and New Users But Still a Tough Sell

Talking about customer relationship management in retail has been problematic for me for a very long time. I still get positive feedback, and reports from readers that it is still relevant, on research we published in 2007 on loyalty programs: “Getting Loyalty Programs Back to Loyalty.” CRM has long been a bad word in retail, ever since some retailers spent millions trying to implement it in the late ’90s and first half of the ’00s. There was a while when we tried desperately to avoid the term in our surveys, because it was a sure-fire way to scare away survey respondents.

Loyalty programs, too, have suffered a similar fate. I see two distinct types of retailers out there – those that hate loyalty programs and won’t have them, and those that hate loyalty programs but can’t figure out any other way to get the customer data they need. Thus, the enduring nature of a report about making loyalty programs more valuable – maybe even to the point where they actually drive loyalty!

CRM Evolution, an event I attended in August, was a very different environment. First, it was a little more horizontal than retail-specific per se. Not surprising – given the stigma associated with “CRM” I was amazed at the retailers that were there, that they would admit that they attend such events. Second, CRM obviously is not a dirty word there. But even for all of that, this wasn’t like attending a Social Media Summit where everyone is drinking the Kool-Aid whole-heartedly. It was much more nuanced than that, and pragmatic.

Three themes stood out to me as highly applicable to retail. It will take a little finessing of things to make them directly applicable – CRM in the context of the New York Yankees selling season tickets is not all that different from a luxury retail sales associate and her little black book in concept. In reality? Yes, there are some big differences. So I’ll give it a shot.

Theme #1: Even if you are working for a company where you can say the word CRM, it still takes a lot to sell a CRM solution internally.

I sat through two presentations by real end-users – real business leaders of end-users – as they talked about how they guided their respective organizations through selection and implementation of CRM internally. These people were the champions of their implementations, and they were the right people to be champions – heads of sales. But they had something of a tough message for the attendees: a lot of pushback on some of the traditional organizational inhibitors involved in CRM implementations (i.e. – getting sales people to actually use the new system). It was interesting to see, especially as a theme. The presenters basically said that they had to take extra care to design the system so that it fit with how sales people worked and used the information. While that should not be revolutionary, sadly, when it comes to IT in general, this is not an issue isolated to CRM. And it makes for a longer road when it comes to implementing these kinds of solutions.

When it comes to retail, this concept should be somewhat mollifying. CRM in retail was once a horrifying experience. Recent advancements in clienteling – a couple of which incorporate themes 2 & 3 below – should make it much less painful. But it will never be pain-free – as well is should not. Sales is a relationship-driven process, and solutions need to conform and embrace that necessity. In retail, that will mean actually developing a real understanding of the sales process in every relevant department, from store floor to contact center. That’s a lot more than the current tactic of training an employee on a register and then throwing them out on the sales floor or onto the phone to see if they can swim.

Theme #2: This isn’t your father’s CRM solution.

If CRM Evolution is any indicator, the CRM solution space is undergoing a massive change, and we’re really only scratching the surface of that change. The biggest impact is due to social media. At first glance it would seem like I’m talking something gimmicky – social business for social’s sake. But back to the idea that selling is a relationship process, that makes it a highly social one too. Sales and marketing are leading the way in bringing social technologies into enterprise applications, according to Esteban Kolsky at ThinkJar. And there is a very broad definition of what constitutes “social” in an enterprise context today – everything from corporate blogs to videos to internal Twitter- or Chatter-like activity feeds.

In retail, I think there is some exciting stuff going on here. Social in clienteling isn’t just about such public attempts as Twelpforce. It’s about a comment stream or ratings and reviews by employees that they share internally with each other, or perhaps use to build stronger relationships with their customers. It’s about leveraging the entire employee base to get help, rather than the limited resources of the local store or store manager. It promises to help make every employee as smart as your smartest employee, but truly only if the retailer has a strategy of hiring and keeping the smartest employees to begin with – something retailers have not historically been good at.

Theme #3: And it isn’t your father’s CRM user either.

This is the place where it’s really a stretch to apply concepts for, say, a B2B sales person or an office-bound B2C sales person to retail. But the funny thing is, inroads are being made here as well. As more and more entry-level sales positions are staffed by Gen Y and beyond, expectations for the tools they’ll have at their disposal are changing. One presenter at CRM Evolution talked about how they had “gamified” their sales process to encourage employees to use the system – providing weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly rewards based on social recognition – the employee who helped others out the most or posted the most valuable content.

The company who created the gamification strategy had started out by studying what people liked about playing Farmville and World of Warcraft (I’m guessing not the same people). Amazingly, for such diverse games, the people who played them had a lot in common about what they said about them: They liked that they were always challenged and had something to do; they liked being able to connect with their friends; getting recognized for their achievements, having a goal to shoot for, the fun of working on a team, and getting to stay in contact with other players.

In retail, it means that the people you’re looking to engage in clienteling to hopefully develop better relationships with your customers have probably already been trained – by games as diverse as Farmville and WoW. And they’ll bring the expectations that those games set into the workplace. Which means that retailers need to provide a way for employees to connect with each other – especially beyond the boundaries of the store. Provide social recognition within that context for people who are positive contributors to the community. Give them goals and update them – in real-time – on how close they are to achieving those goals. And make those goals progressive, so that there’s a new one every day or every week. And finally, change the incentives over time to keep them interesting.

CRM isn’t what it used to be. It’s not even CRM 2.0 any longer – it’s really on the way to CRM 3.0. Hopefully retail will have a better idea of how to use it this next time around – the customer experience is most likely going to depend on it.

Nikki Baird is managing partner of Retail Systems Research, which published this article in its Newsletter.

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