Beneath the Surface: Exploring Five Extra Business Advantages Deep Inside CRM Systems

Many articles about CRM focus on the individual user, often the sales professional. This one is more about how managers and teams can use CRM data to make their work easier, more efficient, and more customer-responsive.

Image of floating iceberg with huge underberg, quotation from Alert Diver, Winter 2011
Beneath the surface, there’s more…

It may come as a surprise to B2B marketing and sales professionals that have been relying on CRM software and other process-automation platforms for years, or even decades, but adoption of these indispensable tools is not universal.

Far from it. In dozens of conversations across my years in sales, sales management, and marketing communications, I would often poll other sales and marketing professionals about which CRM tools they used and what they and their colleagues thought of them. What I found out was that while CRM is in very common usage, there were a couple of very interesting circumstances where they weren’t a prominent business tool, and where, in some cases, the very idea of customer relationship management systems was viewed skeptically, or even openly disparaged;

    • Larger organizations. In these cases, the reasoning often went something like this: “We’re the leader in this field, we know who our customers are, and our relations with them can’t be improved. If anything, our customers should be the ones to track and manage the relationship. Email clients, spreadsheets, and our ERP system can take care of the rest.”
    • Smaller companies or tight independent divisions. “We serve a well-defined niche, and we have a tight team. Our monthly meetings keep everybody in the loop, and the call reports are stored in a central database that is accessible and searchable. We’re lean, we’re focused, and another tool would either be overkill and take time away from the productive effort, or would simply be ignored.”

These attitudes persist at the peril of those that hold them. But in both cases, the answers at least demonstrate a recognition that some form of management of these important relationships is an important element within the human side of business processes. But companies large and small face new 21st-century challenges, including age gaps, new digital channels, competing startups and joint ventures with innovation mindsets, and existing competitors that are willing to embrace the new rather than resist it.

CRM, which stands for Customer Relationship Management, can be a misleading term, mainly because it’s inadequate to describe the actual breadth and usefulness of these tools. CRM doesn’t just manage, it organizes, it analyzes, it archives and it automates. CRM doesn’t just process customers; it imports suspects, nurtures them to become prospects, and poises them to be converted to loyal customers. It also codes, tracks, triggers and documents non-buying specifiers, and representatives, and competitors, and distributors and other resellers—each with the specific tagging needs each category demands. And CRM doesn’t only track and control relationships; it can help management find patterns, optimize effort, recognize gaps, and address these new-recognized needs with sales-process changes and training programs. It can provide invaluable data to drive informed decision making when choosing which channels, tools, and audiences deserve a company’s investment of dollars and resources.

So here are my five “extras” organizations can realize when effectively using solid CRM systems.

  1. Continuity
  2. Sales people, and sales managers, come and go. There’s an old saying—People don’t leave companies, they leave managers. Similarly, companies don’t have relationships with other companies; and customers don’t have relationships with their suppliers; the relationships are between the people at the respective companies. CRM systems, even without perfect data entry, even without ideal database-design structure, record a history and flow of those personal relationships along with details about sales and service.

    When people leave—to retire, to change industries, or to join a competitor—they take many intangible aspects of those relationships with them. With a CRM record maintaining the names of the key contacts, peripheral contacts, notes, communications, categorizations, service records and problem/resolution documentation, the new account manager has a place to start, and a head start, toward rebuilding the personal elements of the relationship.

  3. Automation
  4. Yes, CRM systems are great for organizing and tracking the touches, for reminding and scheduling, and for tagging and categorizing customers and specifiers. Fields and functions track industrial categories, functional departments, job titles, relationship initiation and customer acquisition dates, trouble tickets, product choice, opportunities and quotes, and more. Beyond the convenience provided to the account manager, these data serve as a guide for sales continuity and retention, and are a gold mine for sales management. But CRM has another layer of capability, and it is deeply coordinated with these core functions; most good CRM systems will easily assemble all of the above into automated processes.

    When a new prospect (whether truly new to the product or service category, or targeted for taking from a competitor) enters the system, data entry can apply a specified automated strategy, and that new contact, the person, not the company, will automatically be led through a custom series of contact steps tailored to move this kind of prospect down through the sales funnel. The assigned account manager will automatically be reminded to follow up. Monthly, quarterly, annual steps can be automated for retention programs to maintain contact with existing customers—or non-purchasing specifiers. Assignment of responsibility (or reassignment based on new data), and service-issue escalation can be automated based on key triggers. The possibilities are endless. This is a very powerful capability of CRM, which is underutilized even among the convinced and converted.

  5. Institutional Knowledge
  6. “And…as an organization, we learned from it.” Mike Davis, CEO United States Golf Association, Philadelphia Inquirer May 22 2018

    The collective/connective experience that builds up as a team of people grows together eventually gels into a group identity, and personality. In many cases that unique group personality even merges with the formal or informal “brand” identified with that product or service, and the company that developed it. A key element of a group’s business identity and brand is institutional knowledge, also sometimes called institutional memory. Some experts prefer the latter term because ‘memory’ carries a more fragile implication than ‘knowledge.’ Small organizations that have suffered the sudden loss of institutional knowledge, through retirement, death, or competitive poaching have had to endure crises of identity that can cause problems that linger for years.

    The smartest management teams encourage the use of CRM systems for all departments across the organization—not just customer service, not just sales, not only the customer-facing, relationship-based positions and departments. Institutional memory crosses all functions, all levels. Founders, organically risen presidents, and c-level directors possess tons of it. So do lab managers, long-term contractors, and IT people. It’s contained in the stories told at annual meetings over coffees and cocktails, in the early history and origin story of the company’s founding and start-up struggles—and in the big blunders and near-misses—and great success stories. Imagine a new employee that is encouraged to explore notes, message strings, and thorny trouble-tickets—records that tell stories of company adventures from beginning, to middle, to end, good or not-so-good. This new employee can then—hopefully with care and tact—ask questions about those very-interesting issues, of the senior engineers, managers, and contractors and specifying partners. Institutional memory helps avoid repetition of mistakes, and encourages openness and continual improvement. It helps maintain morale, and a positive sense of mission and shared purpose. CRM systems can be a big part, along with other information-retaining programs, of an effort to maintain and protect the most important bits of an institution’s memory, and positive identity.

    Santayana is credited with the saying “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Vonnegut commented that Santayana was wrong, that “We’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.” Taking steps to cultivate and retain institutional memory may allow whole groups to at least go into the future knowing where they’ve been, who they are, and perhaps get better outcomes when they must repeat a dubious part of their institutional history.

    CRM lets us hedge our bets on whether Vonnegut, or Santayana, was right. And just as important, it helps us revisit and repeat tactics that worked out well.

  7. Patterns
  8. Companies that don’t collect data in an organized system are losing a key advantage that CRM systems excel at. Data accumulates. After a while, patterns begin to emerge, not simply based on which product sells better in certain geographies, or seasonal circumstances, but based on human interactions. Everybody has sales data, and it’s very useful for marketing analysis. But CRM systems have more nuanced answers within the patterns they gather, if we simply ask the deeper questions. Are we responding fast enough to new inquiries? Too many repeated contacts, too fast? What’s the right interval for follow-up visits for key OEM specifiers? Is it better to ‘keep your distance’ for awhile after a rough patch? If so, for how long? Do sales tallies have answers like these buried somewhere within their data tables? They don’t.

    Of course there’s a human element, because these questions sometimes need to be actually asked of the people and companies we are serving, directly, if they don’t actually volunteer the information (“Andy, you guys don’t have to call me every three weeks, though we do appreciate how you stay on top of your product’s performance. How about every 6 or 8 weeks?“). Finding patterns in the data can help tweak the sales effort. And tweaked sales effort is more efficient sales effort.

    Pattern analysis brings insights to companies that use CRM to nurture relationships, to retain customers, to satisfy specifiers, and to convert prospects. Data-driven marketing has proved that the more you know, the better you grow. But there’s another feedback loop here that can give CRM-software users a big advantage over competitors that haven’t caught on, and that is improved service.

    Sometimes when you look for patterns, while analyzing opportunity conversion, or call frequency, or service effort vs. sales volume—seeking an efficiency insight or business-process enhancement—sometimes something else jumps out at you; something of great value to somebody else. Something that can be, with a little more polish and some sales-marketing teamwork, turned into a value-added service for a specifier, or even for an important customer. A simple example would be a situation where you could set a trigger to inform a customer to check their emergency stock, based on their order-frequency patterns. Ever had a customer who air-freighted 3 orders in a row? 20 tons each? I have.

    But engineered products that gradually wear out, that require monitoring or periodic testing, complex systems, or process components that can serve as early warnings of bigger problems when they fail—all of these can be candidates for special programs that will provide your customers better service, and make you and your products more indispensable.

    And CRM software systems are capable of capturing all kinds of patterns, trends, and insights.

  9. Confidence
  10. What happens when you have quick and ready access to…?

    • The decades-long history of your customer’s purchases?
    • Why they left a competitor to become your customer?
    • When and why they had to re-engineer a key component of their manufacturing line?
    • Why they changed their formula, and how it impacted an engineering spec?
    • Which of their other locations are using which of your competitors?
    • Which of their key engineers left for competing organizations, and whether they’re still there?
    • Which company originally supplied a key widget, no longer available from the current supplier?
    • Which equipment OEMs excel at which specialties, and who’s who for parts, service, and troubleshooting?

    The answer to all these questions? Confidence.

    Confidence happens when you have a lot of experience and key knowledge in your head. Confidence gets even stronger when you have a ready resource to consult for deeper, more detailed and more relevant information. When you can tell service and rescue stories to people who like relaxed listening, and also when you can simply present clear and dry details to those other types who just want the facts, ma’am. CRM software systems deliver a memory boost, and little breadcrumb tags you can follow to find out just the information you, and your customer, may be looking for.

    Newer members of the sales or service force can quickly review a customer’s history for 10 minutes before making an introductory call, and feel relaxed and in control, ready, prepared for questions when they make the connection. Seasoned professionals (the ones that have “forgotten more about (fill-in-the-blank) than the rest of the sales force put together” can sift through a few email strings and call reports and reactivate a few of those neurons to, well, add the proper ‘seasoning’ to a presentation geared toward adding those three new plants coming online in Q3 to the account. And marketing and PR specialists that need application stories or case histories can review the past details and get straight to the point when starting the interview process for new technical content.

Effort Continuity, Institutional Memory, Automation, Strengthened Service Value, and Enhanced Confidence. These five distinct concepts are built into, and flow from the relational structure and ingenious logic that allows CRM software systems to assemble data entered by the employees and generated by the software itself.

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Relevant Links

Maximizer CRM
Hubspot CRM
eChempax CRM

Note: I have no financial or affiliate relationship with these software companies. They are just the CRM applications I have used in the past or use currently.

** Quotation in iceberg image from Alert Diver, Winter 2011 Edition