I hate to be the one to burst the bubble, but since I don’t mind seeming provocative, here goes: In an age when customer engagement has never been more important, customer relationship management technologies, as traditionally viewed, may no longer be relevant. In fact, CRM technology was never about managing customer relationships; it was always about managing customer information. And now that the widespread adoption of CRM systems means they are used by nearly every company in every industry to manage customer information, the time has come for CRM’s next hurrah — to go from a base-level necessity to a true differentiator for competitive advantage.

And while we’re at it, here’s another myth that it’s about time got busted: Companies have less control than ever when it comes to managing the customer relationship. In today’s world of digitally connected, technologically-savvy and information-saturated customers, the age of “managing” the customer relationship is over.  Instead, you know who’s managing the relationship? That’s right, Customers, themselves.  Take a look at the way that customers are shaping their own experience with your brand, companies, and products.  According to Jonathan Becher, hyper-personalized experiences are what customers have come to expect.

And according to recently published research by Bruce Temkin of “Experience Matters” (“What Happens After a Good or Bad Experience”), after a good experience, 57% of 25- to 34-year-olds tell a friend directly, 28% share on Facebook, and 18% put a comment or rating on a review site. After a bad experience, 60% tell a friend directly, 31% share on Facebook, and 20% write a review.

Think about it: Previous to the rise of our social/mobile world, how many tools did customers use to interact with companies and brands? Pretty much two: the store and maybe a toll-free number. Communication tended to flow in one direction, from the company, out. Today, with customers always connected to a universe of information, opinion and online activity, the number of tools and experiences with your brand has and will continue to expand – via social networking, mobile devices, Web sites, e-mail, chat, phone, text, in-store, kiosks – I’m sure you can name others.

That’s why I now think in terms of not CRM but CMR – the “customer-managed” relationship. With so many tools of engagement at their disposal, customers will decide who they’re going to engage with, when and how. In short, the customer is the architect of his or her own experience. And in this “omnichannel” world, the companies that will win are those that quit trying to manage customers and start helping customers navigate their own buying journey.

The first step to making this transition is to stop thinking in terms of “channels.” By that, I don’t mean ignoring channels but instead striving for a channel-less experience. Customers, after all, don’t put up walls between the technologies and channels they use – they just use whatever makes the most sense at a given point in time. And they expect the experience to continue, uninterrupted, no matter which channel they choose — they expect to find digital capabilities in the physical store and vice-versa (think endless inventory in brick-and-mortar stores, and in-store pickup for online orders).

Second, figure out how to be a beacon amid the fog of media overload. Consumers are bombarded every minute with advertising, messages and noise from screens of every shape and size – even when they pump gas or drive down the highway.  How can your brand be the signal in all that noise, a trusted guide or counselor to the fastest, most economical and best decision for that particular customer? Some high-end retailers are doing this already, such as Ultrafemme in Mexico,  enabling customer information scanned from loyalty cards to immediately pop up on store associates’ tablets. Suddenly, product recommendations and personalized knowledge of the customer’s transaction history and preferences are available in the store, just as they are online.

All of this, I’m aware, is a tall order for businesses. To enable seamless channels and be heard above the noise means companies need to interpret the multitudes of data available about individual customers and use those insights to communicate with them personally and directly, through all interactions, all the time. Big data analytics, real-time insights, personalized engagement, a channel-less experience – developing these capabilities means quickly breaking from business-as-usual and technology-as-usual in order to catch up with what, frankly, customers are already doing. Brian Solis, author and customer experience thought leader, calls this Digital Darwinism, a time when technology and society are evolving faster than the ability of many organizations to adapt.

But while it’s not easy, we all know the theory and dynamics of evolution. Thankfully, in this case, there’s a payoff that goes beyond survival. Breaking the bonds of CRM – and accepting the realities of CMR – will result in a rewarding relationship with customers that is personal, lasting and beneficial.

Customer engagement has traveled far beyond the realm of CRM and even beyond traditional sales and marketing. Customers are now navigating their own buying journeys, and rather than paving the route or laying out breadcrumbs to their products and services, businesses will earn the big payoff when they walk beside the customer and simply provide the best and most engaging tools for the trip.

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2 Comments

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  1. Volker Hildebrand

    Great article, Jamie. Totally agree with the shift in the balance of power: clearly, customers are in control. My conclusion – although it seems paradox – is that in the age of the empowered customer you need to empower your customers (even more) in order to stay relevant…

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  2. William Newman

    Right you are, Jamie.  But you *can* influence how the “CMR” exists by making it easier, more convenient, and more connected for your customer to engage with you.  This is the judo that brands need to learn – in order to get more you have to give more to the customer experience.

    Best,

    Bill

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