As a customer-centric business strategy, customer relationship management (CRM) has long been considered pro-customer by default. However, the evolution of CRM strategy, and the software that enables it, has led to customers playing second fiddle to profitability and revenue gains. Who took the “C” out of CRM, and can customer experience bring it back?

The meaning of CRM has changed over the years

Changes in the meaning of CRM brings to view the customer’s fall from grace. Between 2012 and today, Gartner’s definition of CRM went from mentioning the word “customer” eight times to a mere four. Breaking these definitions down helps reveal how profitability called “shotgun,” relegating customers to the backseat.


Definition circa 2012 (the word “customer” appears eight times in total):

Customer relationship management (CRM) is a business strategy with outcomes that optimize profitability, revenue and customer satisfaction by organizing around customer segments, fostering customer-satisfying behaviors and implementing customer-centric processes. CRM technologies should enable greater customer insight, increased customer access, more-effective interactions, and integration throughout all customer channels and back-office enterprise functions.

Current definition (the word “customer” appears four times in total):

Customer relationship management (CRM) is a business strategy that optimizes revenue and profitability while promoting customer satisfaction and loyalty. CRM technologies enable strategy, and identify and manage customer relationships, in person or virtually. CRM software provides functionality to companies in four segments: sales, marketing, customer service and digital commerce.

Gartner’s older definition states CRM strategy “optimizes profit, revenue and customer satisfaction”—placing financial gains on par with customer fulfillment. In contrast, the current definition says CRM “optimizes revenue and profitability while promoting customer satisfaction and loyalty.” Somewhere over the course of seven years, customer satisfaction became a lesser priority than profitability, while ideas such as “organizing around customer segments, fostering customer-satisfying behaviors and implementing customer centric processes” were removed completely.

Additionally, there have been significant changes to the description of what CRM technology should do. The older definition emphasizes CRM software as a tool for better understanding customers and improving how businesses interact with them. Gartner’s present definition is far less specific, and simply says CRM technologies “enable strategy, and identify and manage customer relationships.” Mentions of “enabling greater customer insight, increased customer access and more-effective interactions” are gone entirely.

Follow the CRM money: It’s all about businesses, not customers

Why businesses spend on CRM provides further evidence that customers are not a top priority. Gartner research (available to clients) reports that in 2018 over 65% of CRM investments were justified on benefits to the business only, without considering benefits to employees and customers at all. Even if CRM software was originally developed to enable a customer-centric business strategy, it has evolved to primarily improve the financial standing of the businesses paying for it. While CRM initiatives that prioritize only the business may provide some benefits to customers, this is a side effect not a primary goal.

Customer experience is all about improving the way customers feel about your business

Fortunately for customers, research hints at shifting tides—whether companies like it or not. Growing competition and consumer power has eroded traditional product-based advantages (e.g. price, quality, and branding) and forced businesses to compete on customer experience (CX).

CX is gaining in popularity because it promises to do what CRM failed to—improve how customers perceive and experience your business. The desired outcomes of better customer experience are similar to the original intent of CRM: increased customer satisfaction and loyalty that in turn provides increased profitability and revenue. Despite being well positioned to influence CX, a roadmap to leverage existing CRM software to improve customer experience does not exist.

Re-evaluating how CRM software is used from a customer experience perspective is an easy and cost-effective way to improve your business’s CX. Read on for advice on constructing a basic litmus test for your organization’s customer experience (CX), as well as how to use CRM software to build positive customer experiences and increase brand loyalty.

Fine tune your CRM’s marketing automation settings to improve CX

If you are already leveraging CRM or in the process of selecting and deploying software to improve advertising initiatives, how fine tuned are your marketing automation settings or plans? Sending customers daily text messages and weekly personalized email campaigns might push more people than it pulls.

Use the following tips to gauge appropriate levels of outreach and inform a marketing strategy that optimizes for customer experience:

  • Targeted, event-triggered marketing cultivates positive customer experience while mass-marketing campaigns wear customers out. Gartner research (available to clients) indicates customer experience of advertising depends on three factors: relevance, timing and audience.
  • Event-triggered campaigns that provide relevant offers, are timed around meaningful events and target a segmented customer base “[can] garner five times the response rate of untimed mass-marketing campaigns.” Ensure your CRM’s marketing automation settings align with a customer experience you would respond to and enjoy yourself. If something feels like it might be annoying or irrelevant, it probably is.
  • Less strategically focused, broader marketing campaigns can cause customer contact “fatigue”—when excessive or irrelevant efforts to keep in touch drive customers away (e.g. too many emails, calls or other forms of outreach). Put deliberation and strategy behind the frequency and reasons you reach out to customers. For example, advertise sales only when offering customers genuine discounts on your products or services, and avoid perpetual discounts or risk undermining your own value.

CX litmus test #1: Patronize the competition, scrutinize your marketing strategy

Sign up for newsletters or download apps from competitors you respect or admire, then pay attention to how the volume of emails or push notifications impact your perception of the brand and likelihood to engage with it.

 Ask yourself:  How does this compare to my organization’s brand outreach? What is the customer (or prospective customer) experience like for groups targeted by my business’s marketing efforts? How specific are my segmented customer bases and what events trigger outreach?

Leverage CRM software to better understand customers and sentiment throughout the sales cycle

Predicting customer loyalty is difficult, but maintaining it is necessary for success. Every dollar earned from new customers is two to seven times more expensive to obtain than a dollar in recurring revenue earned from existing customers (e.g. upsells, expansions or renewals). While your CRM likely contains a treasure trove of data on existing customers that could support recurring revenue growth, it is unlikely that data is being leveraged. IBM estimates “80% of all data is dark and unstructured. We can’t read it or use it in our computing systems. By 2020, that number will be 93%.”

While you’re unlikely to solve the dark data dilemma, you can make adjustments to how your organization gathers and utilizes customer data to maximize customer experience and increase your chances of repeat business. The following tips can help ensure employees both capture and leverage all relevant data in your CRM that can improve customer experience throughout the sales cycle:

  • Sales representatives, intentionally or not, are ambassadors for your organization and often the most personal interaction customers have with your business. This places sales staff in an ideal position to convert customers into advocates for your product or service. Provide as much information as possible to sales reps to minimize blind spots in your customer journey. Start by making sure all necessary CRM integrations are operational throughout your organization.
  • A positive customer experience of the sales process requires sales representatives that understand their clients and prospects. Ensure your CRM software has the necessary sales force automations in place to reduce the amount of time reps spend on administrative tasks and maximize time spent engaging with customers. For example, keep clean and current customer contact records to avoid irritating customers with duplicate sales efforts.
  • Train employees on tactfully approaching new customers with the aim of capturing their contact information. Create pre-written pitches sales staff can leverage when describing incentive programs to ensure benefits are communicated fully and lead capture approached with consistency. Employees should understand the nuances of capturing new contacts, with the goal of establishing familiarity without overstepping boundaries or negatively impacting customer experience through bad first impressions.

CX litmus test #2: Survey your customers to identify pain points in the sales cycle

Solicit customer feedback to help with identifying pain points in the sales cycle that might indicate an individual or customer segment requires a different sales approach. Customer surveys can be conducted through different channels (e.g. email, text message follow-ups) after a customer has a verified interaction with your business such as an in-person upsell attempt or marketing outreach.

Prioritize feedback from customers that last interacted with your business two to three months prior. Research suggests waiting a few months after an interaction allows salient experiences—or the details customers remember and consider important—to float to top of mind, offering a better measure of customer sentiment and loyalty.

 Ask yourself:  Does my business regularly adjust sales strategy based on what works, what doesn’t and feedback solicited directly from our customers? How can I better leverage CRM software to reduce time sales representatives spend on administrative tasks?

Happy employees are key to positive customer experiences

According to Gartner research (available to clients), employee engagement worldwide has been low for the last two decades or more:

  • Only 17% of employees are willing to make a significant discretionary effort.
  • More than 65% are regularly thinking about changing companies.
  • Only 54% report feeling high energy and enthusiasm in their work.

Low employee engagement coupled with CRM initiatives that fail to consider employee satisfaction is a recipe for limited adoption or incorrect use of CRM applications by front-line employees.

Employees won’t be engaged if they don’t understand why they’re doing something, and they won’t be happy if their software is painful to use. The following tips can help make sure your CRM is providing employees with benefits they understand, and offering a positive employee experience that will ultimately trickle down to create a positive customer experience.

  • Customer service and sales representatives can make or break customer experience, so it is essential to effectively communicate the value CRM software adds for employees as well as choose a platform that is intuitive and even enjoyable to interact with. A Gallup report found that engaged employees are more likely to improve customer relationships, leading to a 20% increase in sales. Don’t let software get in the way of sales gains!
  • Encourage employees to document any bugs they find or problems they experience when using your CRM (or any business software for that matter). This can help staff feel empowered rather than hopelessly stuck with problematic tools. To avoid unnecessary work for your company, consider formalizing the reporting process such that employees directly reach out to your software vendor’s support team with any issues they encounter.
  • Appoint a staff member that is comfortable using your CRM to be the software’s point person. This employee would be responsible for initiating CRM reviews to determine if the software is performing as it should, refining and enforcing best practices and/or being a reference for others that have questions about the software.

CX litmus test #3: Use your CRM as an employee outside your role would

Use your CRM as a sales or customer service representative in your organization would and make a note of the positives and negatives of your experience. Consider soliciting feedback from others in your organization with an anonymous survey using a tool like Google Forms.

 Ask yourself:  How does CRM software make my employees’ jobs easier? Have these benefits been communicated to staff? Is the CRM my business currently leverages intuitive and enjoyable to use?

Customer experience can be improved without software

According to Gartner research (available to clients), it is best not to force technology on efforts to improve customer experience—at least 50% of projects do not even require a technical component. If you’re considering purchasing software to help improve CX, first determine whether or not existing tools or processes can be better leveraged or adapted to meet the same ends.

Done your due diligence and ready to explore and compare customer experience software?


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