Choice: in CRM, it should be a top-to-bottom concept

By Chris Bucholtz

I have long advocated the idea of CRM vendors behaving like CRM users – in other words, using the ideas that the discipline that CRM represents to run the business of selling CRM applications. A lot of vendors fall short of this; their internal needs trump the needs of their customers, and thus they default back to the behaviors that software vendors have been using for years. I just don’t think using a 1980s-style selling approach is appropriate any more, especially for CRM; if you want my full opinion on this, take a look at this post from last year that goes into it in depth.

One aspect of avoiding this tendency is choice. Vendors that refuse to take steps to broaden their customer’s choices are clinging to an old model; they’re saying, “our customers can’t handle options – they’re too simple to make choices.” It’s like they’ve adopted their philosophy from that Devo song, “Freedom of Choice:” “Freedom of choice is what you’ve got/Freedom from choice is what you want.” Except that was a satirical song about consumer culture; your business is not a confused customer buying trivial items. You’re a business buyer with specific needs, and you need the freedom to choose what works best for your business.

What does choice look like? Well, it can take the form of an interface users can personalize, or it could be deployment models that allow businesses to select from the cloud or on-premise or vendor- or partner-hosted versions of the same application based on their businesses, or it can be even more technical.

For example, SugarCRM quietly unveiled Sugar 6.4 today just in time for IBM’s big Lotusphere show. This is a release targeted primarily at developers, but there’s no reason to limit the options for anyone who works with a CRM application. One of the things that’s included in the new release is DB2 support. Buisiness-wise, it makes sense as an extension of SugarCRM’s partnership with IBM. But there’s more to it. Adding support for database is not an easy thing to do, but it’s necessary if you are serious about the idea of choice – and choice needs to be extended to all people who interface with the CRM application, including the developers who work with it behind the scenes.

One of the common CRM mantras is that you need to allow people to do business with you the way you wish to do business. If you’re a CRM vendor, that should mean understanding what your users need to work with your product in the best, most productive and most profitable way – thus, adding a database to the list of things the application supports is very much in keeping with the idea of a CRM vendor embodying CRM ideas in its product.

Of course, the pursuit of choice can be an infinite effort, and so vendors have to be careful about where they devote their energies. But this is an elemental aspect of how vendors should care for CRM customers. If your vendor insists on making the choices for you, realize they don’t have your best interests in mind – they’re out for themselves.

We all know that customers are evolving. Your customers are demanding a more peer-like relationship with you; they’re buying after doing their own research, and they’re asserting their need to understand their choices. You need to sell to this new breed of customer; it seems logical for CRM vendors to sell in the same way to their customers. After all, if CRM vendors can’t keep up with the changes in customer behaviors and needs, what chance do those vendors’ customers have?  Can you really keep pace with customers demanding greater choice without offering choices within the CRM application?

Some of this is clearly philosophical, I know. But if you ask developers what they prefer – a single, locked-in path or a selection of capabilities that allow them to customize, personalize or integrate in the way that best solves the specific problem at hand – the answer ought to be clear. And it will set up better tactical answers to business issues, making your CRM implementation more effective.