CRM systems have large and intricate databases that describe customer interaction, and most of the effort goes into recording and managing the ongoing conversation between your firm and the customer. CRM systems have information about prospects, customers, e-mail/phone conversations, sales opportunities, and post-sale support. But look inside most CRM systems, and there's very little information about collaboration among your employees: just basic profile identification information and a dozen settings. In most CRM systems, it's difficult to see the totality of a user's activities: the system's focus is on the customer and the development of a deal, not about the conversations happening between users and their attempts to leverage information across your company.
That customer-first focus in CRM is important, but it makes it difficult to optimize the business processes within your company. If landing big customers is a team sport, then a key element of sales effectiveness is the quality, depth, and speed of collaboration across marketing, pre-sales, sales, account management, and customer support. Collaboration is difficult to measure, and therefore difficult to fix. It's a "soft issue" that has to be dealt with by management.
The problem, of course, is that sales teams can be very competitive — with each other. And since collaboration is not something that sales is scored on very seriously, it's not at all a sure thing that management will focus on it.
Consequently, most large organizations are not very good at collaborating. Too often, valuable information about a customer doesn't make it out of marketing or support into sales. Intelligence gets lost, and opportunities to advance a deal are missed. Further, sales tactics that solve emerging market problems may not be shared. In addition, solutions to common customer problems may be known to a few people, but not easily shared across offices.
Historically, the problem of collaboration has been attacked with Knowledge Management systems and other initiatives. It could be solved with a Wiki. It can be covered in training sessions, internal emails, and team meetings. But these approaches are already in place and they clearly aren't working.
Meanwhile, a quarter-billion people are looking at Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter on a regular basis. All kinds of information is shared quickly and easily. If you want up-to-the-minute information on a topic, you wouldn't go to the New York Times. You'd look at a social networking site. So why would you go to a formal KM system for the latest competitive sales tactics or customer problem solutions?
Enter Chatter, Salesforce.com's offering that applies social networking metaphors to the problem of collaboration. It has the immediacy and feel of a Facebook, but is organized around customers, opportunities, and solutions rather than "users." When somebody at your company updates a relevant document or record in the system (such as a contract or a case), the people who are following (read: are subscribed to) that item are given immediate updates. The moment a problem has been solved, people with interest in related cases are notified. Chatter feeds can automatically generate notifications based on changes in up to 20 fields per object — so notifications can get pretty detailed.
Because Chatter is based on social networking UI principles, it's pretty quick to use. As a user, you set up your profile and decide who you're going to follow. Any record that you're the owner of, you're automatically following. While it may take managers a while to figure out how broadly they should be following, most users won't be overwhelmed by the default settings.
Since Chatter is just being introduced, metrics on its effectiveness aren't yet available. When you turn it on, though, you'll immediately notice a number of changes to the user interface (particularly the home page). The real impact to look for in Chatter, though, will be the degree to which e-mail traffic decreases. The success of IM and social networking sites have significantly reduced the amount of quick-reply and "broadcast" e-mails among friends. We can hope that the same occurs in business e-mail, thanks to the kiosk model of information sharing that naturally results from fusing social networking with CRM. (Note, this benefit can only be achieved if you turn Chatter notification emails off — our definite recommendation!)
It's important to note that Chatter is focused on the problem of collaboration within the walls of your corporation. At least for now, all Chatter users have to be Salesforce.com users. This means that customers don't participate in Chatter conversations, and you'll still need to have good linkages between your CRM system and your customer facing social networks: customer forums, discussion groups, and other sources of network buzz.
Will other CRM vendors follow suit? It's impossible to say, but I'd expect that we will see CRM social-networking initiatives that go in a variety of directions. This is an area of real innovation, so the market won't decide on the "right answer" for quite a while.
David Taber is the author of the new Prentice Hall book, "Salesforce.com Secrets of Success" and is the CEO of SalesLogistix, a certified Salesforce.com consultancy focused on business process improvement through use of CRM systems. SalesLogistix clients are in North America, Europe, Israel, and India, and David has over 25 years experience in high tech, including 10 years at the VP level or above.