The CRM Language Barrier

I will happily admit that I am not one of these technology guys who hangs out exclusively with other technology guys. I’m more likely to hang out with people in other industries – my best friends’ jobs include graphic designer, race car body fabricator, Range Rover mechanic, senior assisted living facility manager and, yes, a few Perl programmers.

And I’m not really a technology guy – I’m a writer first, so I guess I’m a word guy.

That fact – combined with the varied inputs I get from my non-technology friends – helps drive home a point that the CRM industry – and those seeking solutions to customer relationship issues – needs to recognize: we aren’t speaking the same language.

Talk to a vendor and you are exposed to a blast of jargon: CRM, SFA, CEM, APIs, the cloud, SaaS, multi-tenancy, single-tenancy, multi-instance – and those are just a smattering of the technology terms. We also use the semi-codified language of professional sales: leads, prospects, conversions, close rates, pipeline, funnel, and so on.

Most people can “sound out” one of those terms easily enough. Dump them all out over the course of three sentences and you’re going to have a baffled newcomer to CRM on your hands. I routinely have to explain CRM to people when they ask me what I write about, and they are not typically unsophisticated people – nor are they people who would not benefit from using CRM in many cases.

The confusion comes about because CRM users speak their own language – the language of their own problems. They don’t speak the language of the CRM industry; that’s a language conceived in the context of software development. CRM users speak about their own conditions, because those are the pressing issues that are hobbling their businesses. “Marketing is having trouble finding new customers,” or “We’re losing customers to the competition,” or “We need our sales team to be more efficient,” or “We need to stop making customers angry when they call for service.”

Those terms – and a lot more of them – are the way the drivers for investigating technology solutions are articulated by people who are immersed in business, not in technology. This is an entirely different language than the one spoken by the vendors, and it may fatally compromise the search for a solution unless the organization is large enough to have an IT department skilled at translating between the language of business problems and the language of business technology.

Last year, I had a great conversation with Mike Morgan, the CEO of PRM experts RelayWare, about this very topic. He recounted explaining to potential customers his product, and then having them come back at him with their tales of business problems. Then, he’d have to connect the dots – it wasn’t immediately obvious to the potential customers that the product he had described was an exact fit to their problems. Mike realized he had to act as a translator to convert the way the two sides of the conversation spoke into a common language that helped the potential customer toward a solution and the vendor toward a sale.

“They don’t Google ‘PRM’ or ‘CRM,’ said Mike. “They Google, ‘How do I manage partner information.’ And often, that gets them to a solution that has less horsepower or scalability than they really need.”

So what do you do with this realization? If you’re a CRM buyer, do a little research before speaking to vendors, but realize that the language barrier exists – and then look for vendors who are willing to learn your language. That’s a great indication of their enthusiasm for the concept of CRM, and a good marker of a promising CRM partner.

If you’re a vendor, remember that CRM is necessary only in the context of the business using it – it’s there to fix business problems. Implementation is not an end – it’s a means. Thus, it’s very important to re-frame your discussions to the context of the potential CRM user (or, really, for the user of any sales enablement or marketing automation technology) and to use language that he or she uses to describe problems. Put the technology in a context that the user understands.

Just as you shouldn’t force CRM users to alter the way they work to fit an application, CRM vendors shouldn’t depend on CRM users to alter the way they understand and articulate their business problems to fit the vendors’ ways of describing solutions. Know the language barrier exists in many businesses, and work with users to break it down.


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