Industry Insight: CRM and an Expanding App Ecosystem

By Juan Martinez Features PCmag

The customer relationship management (CRM) industry started as a way for companies to turn paper-based contact information into digital files. As the industry evolved, CRM became a cohesive way to take those digital contact files and use them to automate selling. As companies such as Oracle and SAP mastered sales automation, companies began adding features that were designed to improve marketing automation and helpdesk processes. When Salesforce revolutionized CRM by bringing its solution to the cloud, it opened the door for CRM to play a major role in every aspect of your company's business operations.

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Today, companies such as Insightly deliver solutions that connect to a wide ecosystem of applications and are organically designed to help turn basic CRM data into information that can be beneficial for everything from project management to security. We spoke with Insightly CEO Anthony Smith about the changing CRM landscape and what companies need to do to continue to evolve their tools into cross-discipline and cross-geography solutions.

PCMag: As apps from different disciplines bleed into one another, what role does CRM need to play, especially in regards to helpdesk, marketing, and team collaboration apps?

Anthony Smith (AS): Customer expectations have changed dramatically in recent years. They want deeper relationships with businesses that go far beyond the purchase transaction. The role of CRM lies in ensuring a consistent experience across all customer touchpoints—marketing, sales, service, support and project delivery—and using each interaction to build a deeper relationship with the customer.

CRM of the future will need to harness information from disparate but tightly related sources—social signals, communication frequency, omni-channel support and customer analytics—and collate them to generate meaningful relationship intelligence about people and the businesses they work for over time. CRM tools should help every discipline to harness a vast stream of data to customize and personalize each customer's experience, building brand loyalty, and trust and credibility, in a fortuitous loop where every interaction deepens that customer relationship and helps businesses grow. CRM spans the full breadth of the customer journey, from the very first touch to the final click. Having full visibility into the customer journey and every step along the way really helps color your understanding of their preferences and how you engage with them. Using the CRM to gather and ingest data from every interaction will allow you to tailor and personalize your engagements with them over time.

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PCMag: With tools such as Microsoft Teams and Slack helping to connect employees across regions, how has the CRM industry been adjusting its in-app communications to streamline customer and sales-related conversations?

AS: Many enterprise-class tools offer in-app chat but they have generated nowhere near the adoption that Slack has over the past three years. [This is] because Slack is a third-party, independent tool that works across all the different disciplines within the company. Slack lets you bring everyone in the company together to collaborate rather than only the people who use the CRM.

Tools like Slack have presented CRM vendors with two options: invest in their own messaging system and try to increase adoption of that solution or integrate with Slack, which allows everyone to collaborate. The second approach will prove successful. Integrating Slack into a CRM allows users to surface customer data and apply those insights when they communicate about and with each customer. Slack becomes immensely more powerful and the data within the CRM becomes much more applicable. Slack users can query data, pull a customer support ticket containing the customer's history with the company, and collaborate quickly as a team on the right engagement approach. And, ultimately, they can communicate with the customer using other tools, such as social media management platforms, which also integrate with Slack.

PCMag: IFTTT and Zapier enable businesses to connect different tools from different vendors. What can diversified companies offer to gain an advantage over connecting disparate, pure play CRM systems?

AS: The proliferation of SaaS [Software-as-a-Service] has expanded greatly and there are many awesome tools for meeting various business objectives. Every SaaS has an API [application programming interface], and virtually all of them connect to Zapier. Being able to push data from these applications to systems of record via Zapier gives you a lot of freedom and options for what you can choose. You don't need to go all in with a single tool. Since CRM is closer than ever to the customer and touches many different disciplines, businesses cannot afford to deliver a suboptimal experience. They must provide world-class capabilities at every touch point. This is increasing the demand for best-of-breed solutions across a company's CRM ecosystem.

Historically, connecting disparate, best-of-breed solutions was more challenging and, therefore, an all-in-one solution offered convenience and connectivity between the different functions. This advantage is less compelling now due to tools like Zapier, which can serve as the glue between these systems. Zapier offers freedom and flexibility. It allows companies to select the very best applications for their business needs and not compromise with an all-in-one solution.

PCMag: What role can and will artificial intelligence (AI) play in driving the CRM industry forward? How will it work and how will it benefit clients?

AS: AI is an umbrella term that can apply to CRM in three ways. 1) Predictive analytics assist with lead and opportunity scoring, 2) Prescriptive AI dynamically surfaces the next best action for sales to perform, and 3) True AI performs actions autonomously on behalf of the rep. Eventually, true AI will remove the vast amount of drudgery that reps must perform when using current CRM tools (inputting and retrieving data, updating forecasts, determining their call list for the day, etc.). These are low-value activities that don't serve reps or help customers. They are designed to help management forecast the next quarter and that's driven the CRM industry until now.

The future of CRM is the focus on rep adoption and the customer relationship. It's about moving from internal-focused processes to those that serve the needs of reps and customers by building lifetime value. By automatically handling these repetitive and low value-add activities, AI will allow reps and other CRM users to focus on what really matters, building relationships with customers and bringing their projects to completion.

PCMag: We've seen an increase in tools that deliver CRM and project management in one cohesive package. How do these tools work in concert and what benefit do users derive from the interplay?

AS: It costs eight times more to acquire new customers than to retain existing ones, and successfully delivering a project is the most powerful way a business can gain the trust and loyalty of its clients. In most traditional sales environments, there's a culture of "drive-by selling." Once a deal is done, the salesperson moves on to close the next opportunity or qualify the next lead, leaving some other team in their organization (most likely Customer Success) to ensure that what's sold gets delivered. It is exactly at this vital point where the stakes of the customer relationship are the highest and where dropping the baton is simply not an option. Surprisingly, it is this part of the customer experience journey that has been completely ignored by legacy CRM systems.

Today's CRM solutions should have this vital project management functionality fully integrated, seamlessly converting a "closed won opportunity" to a "new project", carrying with it all the information learned about the customer during the deal process. This gives everyone in the organization involved in the process of delivering what has been sold, the best chance of exceeding customer expectations every step of the way, including the sales team.

This article originally appeared on PCMag.com.