Breaking Down the Social Silos: Qontext

More and more we are hearing about companies looking to ditch email in favor of more social tools – cleaning out the inbox as it were. I do not think we will see email completely go away any time soon, but the use of electronic correspondence is changing. The social revolution has changed the way we do businesses, from our high-level marketing strategies all the way down to the way we interact with each other, and our customers on a daily basis.

SugarCRM is aiming to be on top of this shift, and has partnered with a few cool vendors to help equip our users with the tools to get their jobs done in a changing world. I recently sat down with Samir Ghosh, VP of Business Development at Qontext – an E 2.0 and social platform that is now integrated with SugarCRM. We talked about how business life is changing, seperating the hype from reality, and a bit on the future of CRM in the age of social. Here is a transcript of our talk:

Samir, how has business life changed, now that we are in an era where social media permeates our existence?

Social media has empowered customers and markets to the point where companies and CEOs are almost running scared.  They’re afraid of the individual customer with 5,000 Twitter followers who has a single bad experience.  Many CEOs log onto social media sites solely to check on their company’s image.  An Ethos/Herder study found that 40 percent of companies technically block their employees from accessing social media while at work.  A lack of understanding has made “social” almost a stigma within some companies.

So, how do you see social media and social behavior playing into the business world in a positive manner, and how does Qontext fit in?

Hard to imagine, but social behavior existed even before the Internet.  In fact, some would argue integral to being human is being social.  Technology, particularly communications technology can supercharge social connectivity.  This was evidenced even back in the ’90’s with the emergence of groupware, like Lotus Notes.  But Notes started before wide Internet use and was business-focused.  The more recent social media phenomenon has erupted in the Internet consumer markets.  And it’s important to make two distinctions regarding “social” within “social media”: 1) social functionality, and 2) social purpose.  Facebook, for example, has social functionality (profiles, “friending”, content sharing, etc.), but it is also primarily social in purpose (keeping tabs with existing friends, reconnecting with old friends, and making new ones).
In business, we’re less concerned with socializing purpose, but want to leverage the proven social functionality for improved teamwork.  So why not just use Facebook for business?  Well, Facebook is free for consumers, which means it includes advertising.  Plus, Facebook owns all data and controls that data’s persistence.  Businesses need ad-free, info security, control and service accountability.  And they need that social enablement not in “socializing-purposed” applications, but in the applications, like CRM, that are critical to their business.

Do you think “traditional” CRM is a thing of the past?  Or will it always have a place in an organization?

Customers and organization’s relationships with their customers are central to any business.  How can Customer Relationship Management ever disappear?  CRM will evolve, but not disappear.  Just as CRM has evolved to include numerous customer touch points such as Customer Service, Marketing and Sales, CRM will continue to evolve to improve customer relationships impacted by other departments.  However, these departments impact customer relationships less directly.  That’s where “business social collaboration” comes in.  For example, social collaboration can help make more efficient those sales or customer service exception workflows that can be prevalent or costly to the business.  Since these exception workflows usually cross function, department, geography and application, the social collaboration functions cannot be limited to just CRM.  Social collaboration must be a platform that integrates conversations with CRM and any other line of business application.

How much of being “social” is about cultural change, and how much is about technology?

Maybe this is intentionally a loaded question, but at least in this context, it’s really the intersection of both, culture and technology.  We’re already social culturally, if not innately.  Technology is providing unparalleled and new ways to be “social”.  For business, however, remember that the applicable “social” value is not about sharing what we had for lunch.  In a world of increasing global competition, increasing materials costs, more sophisticated customers, increasing supply chain complexity with increasing growth goals, companies…the smart ones, realize they must democratize decision making in their organizations.  The ivory tower must not become an “ivory bottleneck”.  Social functionality (not social purpose) enables better leveraging of collective expertise, remaining better in tune with the happenings of the business, and more effectively communicating with colleagues towards these key business goals.
As pointed out in Forrester Research’s book Empowered, customers are ever-more empowered by social media.  Employees cannot match this customer sophistication and power via traditional means.  Employees need similar social technology.

If you have one piece of advice to give companies looking to make their customer-facing processes more social, what would that advice be?

Application vendors scrambling to add social features to their applications are simply creating “social silos” where conversations and collaborations are limited to those applications by these proprietary features.  Instead, leverage a social platform that easily integrates with your CRM and easily with any of your other existing applications so social interactions and knowledge can easily span departments.  Another critical benefit is faster adoption as you enable a broader audience to interact, reaching that internal tipping point more quickly.

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