CRM and customer-centricity are code words for customer engagement and customer experience

Brian Solis explores the value of customer-centricity from both the lens of human beings and of data, as well as what Salesforce is doing about it with Customer 360 Truth.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

While I labor mightily over the Watchlist submissions (with a few surprises so far -- more than last year), I am continuing to keep you informed with weekly guest posts from prominent thinkers in multiple venues. This week, another really insightful one from one of my favorite world-class analysts, thought leaders, and friends: Brian Solis.  

Brian dropped a piece on us a couple weeks ago on voice in general and Einstein Voice in particular. This week, he addresses a fundamental transformation that is going on in the world of business and customers -- engagement and experience dominating and how to address it with Salesforce 360 Truth as a lynchpin of his discussion. 

So, Mr. Solis, take it away!

"I'm going to let you in on a little secret, we're really not customer centric, we just say it because everyone else does," said no credible executive ever.

What does customer-centricity even mean today? Is it a state? Is it an intention? Is it plain old marketing? Putting the customer at the center of any business has been aspirational to date, an evolving pursuit of IT, sales/commerce, marketing, and service. But along the way, existing organizational models, lines of business, and systems struggled to collaborate. Add to that, the continuous clash between legacy and emerging technologies made the physical acts of placing the customer at the center of the business onerous and even elusive.  

Heading into a new decade, however, businesses are now gaining access to incredible arrays of innovative technologies to accelerate growth and transformation. CRM is still one of the most important keys to customer-centricity. And still, even with strides in innovation, CRM faces some of its most relentless hurdles. It's incredibly difficult to be customer-centric if you're not actually centered around the customer. Business and data silos, incomplete or duplicate customer data records, incongruent touchpoints, disconnected apps, and incompatible systems and services -- and, to be honest, a lack of unified leadership driving toward strategic integration -- remain as common issues that require prioritization and escalation.

The Quest for a 360 View of Customers

Let's remember that CRM stands for customer relationship management. This is about optimizing relationships and using advancing technology to get closer to customers. The question is, what kind of relationship do you want to have with your customers? The answer starts with knowing the customer, defining the experience you wish to deliver and then building an architecture for meaningful engagement.

Organizations need a 360 view of customers to get to their truth. And this "360 view," too, has been a long sought after "Holy Grail" in its own right. But to get there requires more than technology and data.

Enterprise vendors, which help business customers modernize operational models, as well as infrastructure, and executive mindsets to organize around integrated customer data and insights, will ultimately create a new blueprint for customer-centricity.

In my research over the years, I've learned that the pursuit of customer-centricity was a leading driver for digital transformation. And at the heart of all this is customer experience (CX). In fact, year over year, I found that a majority of digital transformation initiatives were focused on CX. Companies that prioritized customer experience investments evolved much faster across what I defined as "The Six Stages of Digital Transformation."

The New Blueprint for 360 Customer Views and Unified Customer Experiences

As a digital analyst, I try to keep up with all of the technology advancements from leading vendors pushing forward cloud, AI, voice, real-time and predictive analytics, sentiment analysis, data integration, 5G, cloud migration, et al. Every day, it seems that CRM, BPM, and ERP platforms are only becoming more and more awesome. But also, as someone who interviews business executives as part of ongoing research efforts, I also hear the very human struggles trying to also keep up with everything while leading difficult modernization and change management initiatives within.

This is why vendors need to apply customer-centricity to their go-to-market initiatives. Perhaps it's a shift in enterprise sales and marketing from B2B to B2B2C or maybe just P2P (people to people.) We need to complement conversations about innovation and capabilities and platforms with empathy that takes into account very real challenges within the enterprise and also the very real challenges their customers face traversing today's customer journeys.

Maybe it's time we humanize the CRM and CX lexicon. (Paul note: Sorry to interrupt. I am behind this 1,000%.)

When we talk about CRM, what we're really talking about is technology that allows enterprise customers to facilitate more meaningful, productive, and loyalty-building customer engagement. When we talk about customer-centricity, we really need to emphasize efforts around unified customer experience. Actually, we need to call attention more directly to the "customer's experience." Adding that "'s" changes the dynamic of planning and strategy toward customer-centric systems thinking, holistic systems of engagement, and operational innovation.

This is important because customer experience is defined by the sum of all engagements a customer has with your business. Every touchpoint counts. Anything that isn't helping customers toward their standard of experience may, in fact, be taking away from the experience you're aiming to deliver.

When it comes to CRM or any enterprise technology for that matter, engagement and experiences must be humanized for executive decision-makers as well as how platforms help them deliver the integrated experiences customers seek.

Rapid Advancements in CRM Technology and User-Centered Narratives Will Help Enterprise Customers Adapt and Innovate

Leading enterprise vendors such as Zoho, Pega, SAP, Oracle, Microsoft, Adobe, and more, are starting to make strides on this front. In my work with each vendor, I'll start to explore this topic of CRM to CX evolution in more detail over time.

One vendor that recently caught my attention was Salesforce through its recent announcement of Customer 360 Truth. Originally announced at Dreamforce 19, I didn't get a chance to really process the news and its approach until now. It was this Salesforce hosted Q&A with Patrick Stokes, executive vice president of platform shared services at Salesforce, that really impressed me. In it, he explains how Salesforce views the integration of sales, service, marketing, commerce, and communities as well as third-party and legacy systems as a single source of "truth." But it was his transparency in explaining the opportunity and the challenges facing the harnessing of customer truth, that hit home.

Stokes explained, "Seeking a single source of truth for each customer isn't a new idea, but it's been difficult to achieve. Buying a car, or even selling a CRM solution as we do, can involve hundreds of touchpoints across a variety of systems that need to be tracked and managed. Ultimately, you want to have a holistic graph of past and present customer engagement so you can better serve the customer and predict future needs."

It's not just Salesforce solving for this. The difficulties in achieving a 360 customer view explained earlier in this article is what every company faces and what every vendor, and also enterprise digital transformations, are striving to answer.

I also appreciated Stokes' expanded perspective beyond technology and technical hurdles that made the conversation much more relatable.

"You can't up-level customer experiences if you can't overcome organizational barriers that prevent deeper integration." he continued. "When you have a more customer-centric culture, those barriers tend to break down."

Customer 360 Truth Aims to Unite Disparate Data for a 360 Customer View

We are finally arriving at the moment when CRM technology and data can power integrated and value-added customer engagement and experiences. According to Salesforce research, the demand is certainly there, "70 percent of customers say they expect connected experiences in which their preferences are known across touchpoints." That number will only go higher as customers start to realize the fruits of next-generation CRM solutions.

Customer 360 Truth introduces a new set of data and identity capabilities. It promises the ability for companies to connect, authenticate, and govern customer data and identity across the Salesforce platform to build "a single source of truth across all of their customer relationships."

Customer 360 Truth as a service is divided into four parts (per Salesforce's press release):

Customer 360 Data Manager: Delivers the ability to access, connect and resolve a customer's data across Salesforce and other systems, using a canonical data model and a universal Salesforce ID that represents each customer.

Salesforce Identity for Customers: Removes friction from the login experience and enables a single, authenticated and secure relationship between a customer and all of a company's websites, e-commerce stores, mobile apps, and connected products.

Customer 360 Audiences: Builds unified customer profiles across known data such as email addresses and first-party IDs and unknown data such as website visits and device IDs. It then creates customer segments and marketing engagement journeys from those profiles and delivers AI-powered insights, like lifetime value and likelihood to churn.

Privacy and Data Governance: Enables companies to collect and respect customer data use and privacy preferences, as well as apply data classification labels to all data in Salesforce.

Additionally, Customer 360 Truth is powered by the Cloud Information Model (CIM), enabled by Mulesoft's open-source modeling technology. CIM is an open-source data model that standardizes data interoperability across cloud apps.

As Stokes described it, "…When you are connecting data sources to Customer 360, you are mapping data from the source to a canonical data model, CIM. The Customer 360 source of truth is not only the identity of who your customer is, but it is the corresponding keys for where that data lives within Salesforce."

Salesforce admins can then establish connections between data sources to prepare, match, reconcile and update a customer profile.

"The reconciled profile across apps enable employees to pull up relevant data at the time of need from any connected system, such as when a service agent may need to pull a list of past purchases from an order system in order to better assist in solving a problem," Stokes explained.

What's important is that this approach connects data but leaves the information in the systems that manage it. Add to this, Salesforce's recently upgraded Einstein platform (now with voice), businesses have access to AI-powered recommendations and insights to take immediate action.

Other approaches are still siloed and require incredible patchwork. And other promising solutions are creating separate AI-powered layers to process information from disparate systems (even sourcing from multiple vendors) in real-time and then feeding results back to business users across platforms.

With Salesforce, a map is created on top of the data in each cloud to know where it is, how to retrieve it in time of need and then use it to personalize a variety of experiences at the moment.

What I appreciate about Customer 360 Truth goes beyond its capabilities. It's also how Salesforce is communicating to customers that it's going after root problems to deliver what their customers ultimately want, more personalized, integrated experiences. In doing so, Salesforce is also walking the walk by delivering a more human, relatable customer experience for businesses, which helps them deliver better experiences to their customers.

The evolution of CRM, after all of these years, is finally making customer-centricity a reality. The ability to place the customer (and their data) at the center of "their experience" and empower businesses to deliver more personal engagement, integrated journeys, and better outcomes is what adds up to memorable and sought-after customer experiences. And this is just the beginning of a new genre of experience innovation (and market narratives). When human-centered innovation and market conversations win, the customer and the customer's customer also win.

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