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The Decade of Living Sustainably

This story was originally published on Jan. 20, 2010, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.

“Sustainability” has been the key issue capturing my attention this year, so it makes sense to tease apart just what that term means for CRM. To me, sustainability is about business processes that are repeatable and, more to the point, processes that both sides readily engage in. However, in addition to the processes being repeatable — the easier part — the customers must have a stake in wanting to repeat them, which is way different from readily engaging the first time.

Now, I realize that the definition I have just provided has some basic flaws. First, it is utopian — it implies that a sustainable business process can run by itself, like a perpetual motion machine. No business process is sustainable by that definition; they all need new blood and fresh recruits to work.

In fact, the simple capitalist requirement that an economy grow must be satisfied. So the sustainable business process must provision for new customers coming in and older customers leaving, for whatever reasons. In the sustainability era, we also need to be very good at recruiting.

We are a long way down the trail on sustainability in some of our business processes, but often the trail changes from four-lane highway to dirt road. We have highways within departments — sales, marketing, service — but the pavement is more rugged when we go between those departments even today, many years into the CRM experiment. That’s fine with me; I am interested in progress over a longer term, and there’s plenty if you look for it.

Rethinking Marketing

So, for example, we well understand the desirability of a sustainable or repeatable sales process — but not so much the importance of sustainable service processes, in many situations. Old thought habits die hard, and service is still seen as a money-losing proposition.

Too often we compete on price, and hence there are insufficient profits to enable first-rate service and support processes. Yet if you take another cut at the problem — for an existing customer, service and support are often the on ramp for repeatable sales.

In the sustainability era, service quality — not just the experience — will be the product, so efforts to enhance service will be well rewarded.

Furthermore, marketing is too often viewed as a money-losing proposition on performance-enhancing drugs. It’s marketing’s job to spend money, after all, and too many of us can cite John Wanamaker’s famous dictum that half of his advertising budget was wasted but, alas, he didn’t know which half. However, as an aside, why are we still relying on some 19th century encomium to influence our 21st century marketing thinking? In medicine, law, the sciences, and many other areas, the 19th century is a footnote with a few nuggets we point to as the progenitors of the knowledge we now have.

Nonetheless, marketing in the 21st century is not only an on-ramp for sales, but also for research that will drive current and future product development, messages — and, of course, sales. Indeed, in a sustainability era, no group will have its core function rearranged more than marketing.

On the Road

Sales will have to cope with smaller margins, travel restrictions, and the demand to be more accurate in forecasting with resulting cascades of other demands. Service and support, as we have seen with the introduction of social media into those processes, will be relieved of some of the volume that makes it so hard to do well.

On the other hand, making other processes more sustainable will require much more data and information. Marketing is ideally suited to data gathering, at least in cases where the right tools are brought in. As marketing becomes more of a research hub it will become more accurate and reliable, finally retiring Wanamaker’s maxim.

Doing that will require concerted effort and a good dose of social media. To do that, we need to explicitly focus on the differences between inbound and outbound social media and work out the business processes that harmonize the two.

We are only at the stage where all social media is cool, and the point where we can be selective and apply the right medium to the right business problem is still in the future. When we get all the way there — in force — we will be well on our way to sustainability.

Plenty of people like to quote variations on a line that’s been attributed to Bill Gates and many others: We overestimate what we can do in a year and underestimate what we can do in 10. With that as a guide, welcome to the decade of sustainability.


Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at [email protected].

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