The Evolution of CRM: Building Social Relationships in the Cloud

By Richard Young, Director of EMEA, Nimble

Social media has turned the relationship between customers and salespeople on its head. But Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tools are adapting to this sea change – as must you, if you’re a sales professional.

Product and service vendors have been managing their relationships with customers for many, many centuries, really – ever since the concept of commerce was put into practice. Starting a couple of decades ago, the term customer relationship management became synonymous with computer software that automated the process.

Desktop-based CRM systems helped businesses build databases of customers and identify promising leads. Information about these prospects was fed into the system from all corners of the company, and the sales team was able to assemble detailed profiles of their contacts. They were then able to identify these potential customers’ needs, maintain a running log of their interaction and build relationships with them — based on a great deal of knowledge.

As other desktop systems migrated to the Web in the 90s, so did CRM applications making access easier for remote employees. Then along came social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Slowly, the model changed again.

A New Kind of Customer, and a Sales Challenge

Today, you as the salesperson are no longer the first contact that purchasers of goods and service have with a company. By the time they’re ready to start exploring the possibility of a sale, these consumers and businesses have learned a lot from their network of online contacts. According to a Google eBook that explores this Zero Moment of Truth – the online decision-making moment — they’ve solicited information from 10.4 different sources.

So the connected customers of 2012 are very different from the even the online shoppers at the turn of the millennium. They do more comparisons. They browse Facebook and Google+ pages for product and service information – and for comments and reviews from people who have already purchased. They read posts on company blogs and pose questions. They follow Twitter feeds to see how responsive customer service is.

What does this mean for you? Several things: No longer can you rattle off a description and list of features – your audience already knows about them. Might you provide testimonials from satisfied customers? No, the prospects have already read peoples’ evaluations on numerous sites. Advertisements? Direct mail? Brochures? There’s still a place for such tools, but they only scratch the surface of what a diligent researcher can find on the Web.

A Limited Data-Gathering Model

In these early days of social media, you’re no longer the primary go-to resource for information. The conversation is changing, and the buyer is driving it.

This phenomenon changes the nature of CRM. Previously, you would build a profile of a prospect based on:

  • Basic contact details, possibly obtained from a mailing list
  • A contact history, neatly-organised electronic records of interaction with the prospect
  • Information about the prospect that other individuals in the company have received

Demographic data, a synopsis of the prospect’s interests and a sense of what their needs were would be extraordinarily helpful, but that would require a lengthy conversation – if the individual was willing. Maybe they checked boxes on a mail-in inquiry card – but probably not. Traditional CRM was limited to collecting information that was relayed directly by the prospect to you or a co-worker.

Discovering Needs, Qualifying Leads

In a sense, the Web is serving as a lead qualifier – at least in terms of gauging interest. If someone contacts you, it means they’ve probably done their homework – “touched” those 10.4 informational sources – and they’re closer to their buying decision than last century’s customers would have been by then.

If only it were always that easy. It’s been said that the Internet is one giant sales database. While there’s some truth to that, no useful database would be so far-flung and disjointed. So you must be a bit of a detective to build the more comprehensive prospect profiles that social media facilitates.

First, you need to find out where your potential customers “live” online. That will depend in large part on the type of business you’re in, since every social media destination has its own draw. Join LinkedIn Groups and participate in topic-driven Twitter chats (there’s a good list here). Explore Facebook and Google+ pages hosted by companies in your industry. What are they talking about? Are there common threads you might follow to other venues? What blogs and other communities might your prospects frequent?

Build Your Credentials

Social media provides a golden opportunity for customer relationship management that desktop-based CRM tools don’t. You can slowly and carefully establish yourself as a thought leader in your field by sharing your expertise. Be helpful. Answer questions on blogs, in chats, on Twitter. Provide general information and leave the sales pitch back on your own website. There’s nothing wrong with posting a link to your blog or site in your signature line, just as you might hand a business card to someone at an event when you’re just chatting, but don’t overtly sell when you’re just travelling around getting the lay of the land.

Ask questions. You’re trying to assess peoples’ needs. What problems do they have with their existing solution? What’s on their wish list? People like to buy from people they like, individuals and companies that simply want to understand, to empathise, to learn and respond.

Social Relationship Coordination Necessary

Managing your social relationships can be a Herculean task. Fortunately, there’s help.Nimble provides a Web-based framework for your contacts, email, social streams and activities. No more hopping from site to site. You get a comprehensive profile of your customers and prospects, and you can see who influences them, pulling them, too, into Nimble. The site goes far beyond what desktop CRM solutions can do, letting you track, manage and explore the social connections that can evolve into sales relationships.

Undoubtedly, CRM will continue to evolve. Social media have opened the floodgates, and effective management of these new insights into your existing and potential customers can keep you competitive.


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