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You may have heard, United Airlines failed in a big way yesterday. Here’s what happened: the airline barred two teenage girls from boarding and required a child to change clothes after a gate agent decided the leggings they were wearing were inappropriate. That set off waves of anger on social media, with users criticizing what they called an intrusive, sexist policy.

The airline has been in PR damage control mode ever since, while still oddly defending their decision. They noted that teenagers were “pass riders,” meaning they are relatives or friends of United employees and held to a different dress code standard than regular passengers – who are allowed to wear leggings.

So, while the gate agent might have been technically correct in enforcing policy – how is this sound business strategy? Air travel is an incredibly competitive industry, which means the customer experience is what determines success and failure. Customers are more than willing to jump to a competitor if you don’t provide the best possible experience. In this case, United’s competitors smell blood in the water:

 

Customer-facing employees need to feel empowered to provide a best-in-class experience for customers. Yes, rules and policies are in place for reason, but there are also reasons employees at airlines and hotels are given latitude to make things just a little better for individual customers (without harming the experience of others) when they have a chance. In fact, it’s a key strategy to build brand loyalty and the success of the organization depends on it.

Finally, if we are that concerned about what people wear on a flight, let’s start with this guy.

Marketing teams are charged with building extraordinary relationships with customers. With this much responsibility, it makes sense for the marketing department to become power users of CRM. However, many marketers view CRM as a tool for sales or customer service and may struggle to see how it can become a critical tool that helps them do their jobs better.

Recently, I had the chance to sit-down and talk with Clint Oram, SugarCRM’s co-founder, CMO, and frequent contributor to this blog to discuss how marketers can best use CRM.

Q: What’s one opportunity for using CRM that marketers often overlook, but has the potential for making a significant positive impact?

A: CRM can, and should, be tightly integrated with top-of-funnel marketing tools like marketing automation and the website. Building on that, CRM is the starting place for segmenting your customer base for install base campaigns. Rather than just blindly running marketing campaigns to your entire database, segmenting your customers and prospects by size, geography and industry helps you be more strategic and efficient. For instance, you will want to run a financial services campaign in New York and a manufacturing campaign in Detroit. CRM helps you do that.

Q: What about challenges with CRM tools? What’s the most common challenge you come across and how can marketers get past it?

A: For marketers, CRM user adoption is a challenge. Marketers are smart people, and unlike our friends in sales, there isn’t quite the same mandate to use CRM from management. So, if the CRM doesn’t provide an easy user experience that makes their job simpler, marketing folks just won’t use it. As an organization, it’s on your CRM selection team to not forget about their users when they select and deploy a new system. At SugarCRM, we have some wonderful examples of customers setting up creative onboarding programs to make sure employees are comfortable and understand all the benefits of the CRM.

Q: Marketers can use CRM tools to support initiatives across the customer lifecycle—from generating awareness to maintaining loyalty. Where are marketers currently under utilizing CRM tools? And what can marketers expect from increasing its use in that area?

A: Building loyalty by running marketing programs for current customers is underutilized in many companies. All the data tells us retaining and expanding relationships with current customers is much more cost-effective than turning leads into new customers. Marketing teams should ask themselves, “What else can we do to build loyalty, turn our current customers into advocates and offer additional products to increase revenue within the current customer base?”

Q: There’s no escaping customer experience as a hot topic today. Marketers can use CRM to enhance many aspects of CX; some areas more than others. Where should marketers focus their use of CRM technology to make the biggest positive impact on CX?

A: Here’s why the customer experience is so important today: with a few exceptions, different companies in the same industry usually offer just a variation of the same services or products. And every one of those competitors are just a simple Google search away from each other.  How you win customers is now based on how you treat customers as much, or more than, as what you sell.

That means the need for an exceptional, and unique, customer experience is more critical than ever before.  Think about it, I’ve stayed in many business class hotels all over the world. There are some minor differences, but they all offer a comfy king-sized bed and a bathroom. The list goes on: airlines, rental cars, even Uber vs Lyft. How do you differentiate yourself when you offer similar goods or services as your direct competitors?

The answer is your customer experience. The companies that win in this era of empowered and intelligent customers win because they create better relationships with their customers. That makes sense, but a natural follow-up question (and the key question to this whole blog post) is: How can you create a better customer experience when you are using the same, uninspired CRM system as your competitors?

Q: Let’s get into the weeds a bit. One benefit of a CRM tool or platform is the efficiencies it can bring to marketing and related processes. Where do you see marketers stumbling here? Where are they getting it right that others can learn from?

A: Automation does bring a lot of efficiencies to marketing. But, to me, the key is building processes that match the way you work – not the other way around. I see too many examples of marketing teams running their campaigns based on what the technology can do. It should be the other way around. A flexible CRM tool adapts to your unique business; you don’t adapt to it. With our advanced workflow capabilities in the Sugar platform, we’ve made it so anyone can redesign and deploy these business processes with a visual design interface. Our advanced Workflow can also be integrated with external systems

Q: Let’s wrap with a look forward. What’s coming up that you’re excited about in two areas: in the market in general—perhaps a trend or tool; and within SugarCRM—any new features or upcoming upgrades?

A: Artificial intelligence is hot right now; you may have heard. There is a lot of noise about AI, and quite frankly the technology industry has overhyped it a bit. We won’t wake up one day and be in era of artificial intelligence. Instead, it will slowly creep into the marketing industry just like most other technologies.

I will say this, adding cognitive intelligence will free up CRM users from tasks like searching for and organizing data things that machines are better at than humans. This will allow humans to focus on what they are best at, which is communicating with other humans. Marketing people, in general, are creative people and they are going to love when AI frees them from the tasks they don’t like, and allows them to unleash their creativity.

Along those lines, look for some really interesting announcements from SugarCRM related to our Sugar Intelligence service. We’ve heard all the AI hype, but we think we are building things the right way in a way the market will accept.

steintongueA few weeks ago I wrote a blog post around how artificial intelligence (AI) is more of an arms race than a “killer feature” that tech firms will be making themselves.

I referenced Salesforce, and its supposedly AI-powered Einstein as an example of a risky bet to make. Salesforce’s strengths are not in analytics (one could argue they’re not in CRM anyone either, but that’s a topic for another day), so why invest your own resources to build something that has already been built? And, why invest when something has already been built better than you can build it?

So, long story short – Salesforce today (surprise, surprise) announces that it can not complete its vision for Einstein without a real “arms dealer,” which in this case happens to be IBM’s Watson.

We have been working with integrating Watson into the Sugar platform for a while now, and can agree that Salesforce has chosen a winning tool. But, we wonder how much money and time Benioff and co. wasted by trying to do it themselves first?

Again, in the end, those that leverage the powerful AI tools in Watson, Amazon’s Alexa, etc. in ways that are seamless and delight employees and customers alike will win.

Maybe this was just an “I told you so” kind of post, but it is important to see that we may not be recapitulating as many mistakes as we have in the past with cloud and mobile in the world of AI…

We are in the era of digital disruption and it’s not just about companies like Uber and Airbnb. Organizations in every industry, because of the ridiculously fast pace of technology innovation, are dealing with disruption. They must come up with digital transformation strategies that focus on utilizing new technologies and business models to more effectively engage with customers at every touchpoint.

Furthermore, there is clear evidence that companies that embrace digital transformation and offer a superior customer experiences are outperforming their competition in terms of attaining and retaining customers.

Recently, we had the opportunity to sit down with a number of our software partners to get their perspective on how they are reacting to and taking advantage of this era of disruption. In the first of our disruption series, SugarCRM’s Martin Schneider talks with Peter Fogelsanger, the vice president of partner enablement at Thunderhead. The two discussed how Thunderhead’s One Engagement Hub is driving digital transformation by helping customers visualize a real time view of their customer journey.

 

Want to hear more partners talk about disruption? Head over to the Sugar Community to view all the disruption series videos.

 

robocopRemember when SaaS CRM companies needed to build their own multi-tenant architectures to bring their CRM to market? And how they needed to maintain expensive and unwieldy architectures that took focus away from actual product development? And how the cost and complexity of said proprietary architectures was passed along to the customer to maintain revenue goals?

Oh wait. That’s still going on with companies like Salesforce.

But, even Salesforce has finally admitted that CRM vendors should not also be cloud infrastructure providers anymore. The company’s recent partnership announcement with Amazon tells us all we need to know. Salesforce needs to focus on innovation, since its core product is old and the cost of maintaining the underlying delivery and development infrastructure itself is proving costly.

So, why is Salesforce potentially repeating past mistakes by trying to create a proprietary AI product for CRM?

Let me explain. What I see brewing with Salesforce’s Einstein concept is a hodge-podge of Wave analytics, generic machine learning (pieced together by several small pocket acquisitions), SalesforceIQ, and elements of Data.com – all components of Salesforce’s portfolio. In short, Salesforce is building yet another proprietary stack in AI.

By “owning” the entire stack, one could argue the profits (as noted, something perennially eluding Salesforce) can be much higher. But at what cost? By instead focusing on integrating industry standards and expert-AI platforms into its tools – a CRM provider can have more flexibility and be able to keep up with the rapid pace of change.

Today, companies like IBM with Watson, and Amazon with its AI platforms are opening these up to software manufacturers as a service. These companies have both the deep pockets and expertise to offer broad and even focused AI-tools for CRM usage scenarios – without CRM vendors having to do much if any heavy lifting.

Here at SugarCRM, we are taking a “best of breed” approach for a number of reasons. One, it will speed our time to market to leverage pre-built, highly scalable and proven AI toolsets and platforms. And, of course, the cost to bring AI-powered CRM offerings to our prospects and customers will be lower, which we can pass on to the user and remain a value-driver for our partners and customers.

And again, by leveraging larger platforms and standards, we will be more nimble than those building hulking masses of analytics engines, giant data warehouses, etc. We will be able to quickly hone our offerings to adhere to market demands, without having to re-architect massive purpose-driven AI stacks.

In short, it is becoming clear to me that AI is an arms race – and categories like CRM should not be trying to reinvent the wheel. Just as with cloud delivery – when you integrate and build upon expert, proven strategies – you can cut costs, speed time to market, and focus on building exceptional customer experiences.

 

(Editor’s Note: the following is a guest blog post from Sarah Friedlander Garcia, the director of marketing at W-Systems. It originally appeared on the W-Systems blog. For more blog articles from W-Systems visit the company’s SugarCRM Blog.).

Silo mentality has become a major problem in organizations across the globe. Today, the lines between sales and marketing teams have become blurred. Marketing teams are often tasked with converting new leads from social media interactions, emails and website visits into customers –  traditionally a sales role. Meanwhile, many sales reps are using these same vehicles to gain insight into a customer’s buying behavior – traditionally the marketer’s job. Organizations must do a better job at clearly defining the roles of sales and marketing, where marketing generates leads and sales closes them.

Software as a Barrier

Technology now serves as another reason for silos between sales and marketing teams. If sales reps are using a CRM platform to manage their customer relationships and marketing is using a marketing automation platform to manage their leads and these two systems aren’t sharing information, it’s a recipe for disaster. A disconnect between sales and marketing can lead to lost opportunities and lost revenue. Then sales and marketing teams are left pointing the finger at each other.

Better Together

Successful organizations need to utilize both CRM and marketing automation systems. However, these two systems must have the ability to share data. By connecting these two systems together, organizations can fully realize the value in each.  Marketing automation is worthless if salespeople aren’t closing deals from the leads provided.  Likewise, CRM is a useless prospecting tool if it is not being fed quality leads from marketing.

The Dynamic Duo

In many cases, you’ll find CRM and marketing automation platforms on the market that offer integration on a very basic level. Unfortunately, basic integration yields basic results. And world class sales organizations need to be much more than basic to compete in the current hyper-competitive landscape.

Marketing automation solution Act-On integrates deeply and seamlessly with Sugar CRM, providing a complete, closed-loop system for multi-channel lead generation, management, and revenue contribution. Act-On features a native, out-of-the-box integration with Sugar, allowing sales and marketing teams to set up automatic bi-directional synchronization between the two platforms.

Synergy at Work

This deep integration allows marketing to deliver highly qualified leads to the sales team, while allowing sales to access those leads and activity histories, personalizing their sales pitch to the individual, in real-time. This is powerful stuff. A sales rep that knows a prospect’s preferences, behaviors and activity history before the call, changes a cold call into a warm call, makes the call more satisfying for the prospect and has a better shot at making the sale.

Studies show that when both sales and marketing teams are in sync, companies become 67% better at closing deals. Therefore, an integration of the technologies used between sales and marketing teams are imperative to breaking down the information silos that exist between them, opening the door to realizing the ultimate goal of both teams – increased sales and revenue.

I just returned from a jam-packed two days at the Gartner Application Strategies & Solutions Summit in Las Vegas. While there, I met with analysts, existing SugarCRM customers, and a lot of prospects and IT leaders looking for the next “big thing” in application software.

gartnerimage002After dozens of great conversations, it is exciting to know that the IT and line of business leaders who attended are driving change in their organizations – mainly around the customer experience. And, perhaps more important, they are doing so in ways that align perfectly with the vision we have here at SugarCRM.

Here are some key takeaways I brought back from the event. I think they are pretty telling about the state of the industry and where we need to be as solution providers for businesses of all sizes looking to reinvent the ways they interact and build customer relationships:

Disruption is a serious issues for nearly ALL industries. I spoke with (and spoke to during my breakout session) individuals from all types of industries – both old, establish firms and even some startups. They ALL said they feel disruption BOTH from digital native upstarts as well as see the changing demands of the customer as disruptive forces.

Transformation over Migration/Modernization. I LOVED hearing that those with older technologies performing CRM functions were looking to go broader and truly transform their cultures and engagement strategies, and NOT simply put in more up to date systems. Right now is a time for transformation, not migration.

You gotta have a platform to win. In nearly every conversation we had with those managing a transformation, or even a broad CRM initiative – they indicated the need for a process-driven platform at the heart of the project. We built the Sugar platform, and embedded advanced workflow, with these types of projects in mind.

CX and CRM are Merging. Well, maybe to be more accurate, as one Gartner analysts described to me – “CRM is becoming a subset of CX.” Meaning, all businesses need some sort of core CRM tool, which can be a foundational system to power broader, more inclusive, end-to-end and omni-channel CX initiatives. I think the attendees are still bewildered around how to create a wholly inclusive CX strategy, but we as an industry need to be experts and be there to help guide them.

Value Matters, Always. We had hundreds of people coming by our booth at the conference and one overarching theme was that a lot of companies simply do not feel they are receiving value for the biggest and entrenched enterprise CRM players. We had a lot of productive conversations about how to drive value inside a CRM/CX initiative – and as more CIOs and business leaders are pressed to do more with less, we will continue to strive to be a leading value-oriented provider for all types of businesses.

Ultimately, it is comforting, energizing and exciting that we have built up a portfolio of offerings and solutions that align well with the needs and visions today’s business leaders see as necessary to remain successful in their respective markets. Thanks to all of the attendees and analysts with whom I had the pleasure of speaking to at the event. It was an awesome few days of learning and sharing ideas!