EXPERT ADVICE

Getting Customer Information Out of the Virtual Shoebox

Successfully leveraging an organization’s collective knowledge has been an aspirational goal for decades, but many companies have deemed the effort as a “mission impossible” after investing time and money into these projects.

Companies have built out information strategies that leveraged sprawling data repositories and sophisticated business intelligence reporting tools; these systems published very precise data, but they fell short in helping a distributed workforce apply knowledge to improve their business execution. As a result, numerous organizations are still recovering from their CRM hangovers.

Many organizations bought into the CRM party line of creating a one-stop shop for their sales and service organizations. The vendor promise was, you will increase top-line results and lower operating costs when you create a “360-degree view” of the customer. But the reality for many is that CRM systems have not in fact enabled a business strategy, but created a virtual shoebox of contacts, notes and customer interaction history.

In a day and age when organizations have access to more information than ever and the market is littered with vendor solutions, why do so many organizations fall short in successfully leveraging their collective knowledge to drive better business results? In practical terms, it comes down to the vast gulf between having loads of data versus having practical knowledge. For example, CRM systems do a good job of telling management and their staff “what to do next” as opposed to “how to do that next step.” Organizations have the component pieces in place, but they need to tie it together in a different way to break out of the CRM shoebox.

Converting Data Into Knowledge

The effort required to attain higher levels of business value may be easier than many organizations realize. Regardless of a company’s size or industry focus, there are four main steps to take:

  1. Minimize Information Overload: Too often we find ourselves adjusting the faucet on the information flow so that our organizations don’t drink from a fire hose. This method of managing information overload is both flawed and outdated. The business problem to overcome is to provide relevant information that is in context and meaningful for each staffer, sales rep, customer service agent, and reseller — in effect, anyone in a company’s value chain. Rather than adjusting the faucet of information flow, adopt practices already proven in Web 2.0 and social networking utilities. By providing end users the ability to rate and score content, you can transform repositories into relevant knowledgebases with expert experiences. Now when end users search for information they get the answers most relevant to their context, as opposed to hundreds of search results they must sift through.
  2. Fill the Information Gaps: A classic symptom of the virtual shoebox is that corporate repositories often don’t have the best information — it’s usually locked in people’s heads. These same people are sharing this information every day through email, over the phone and in meetings. So the next step is to capture this information and get it into physical knowledgebases. One thing we have learned about Web 2.0 and social networking tools is that they are not the panacea. A wiki cannot connect to someone’s brain, and even if it did, wikis do not possess rules engines that can enforce security or manage information distribution rules. In this case, look to the new class of collaboration vendors that offer mash-up utilities. These plug-and-play vendors offer the best of both words: the ability to capture knowledge from business workflow as well as the ability to publish their own “tribal knowledge,” all the while maintaining an organization’s business and security rules.
  3. Deliver Knowledge Wherever It Can Be Leveraged: Employing the first two recommendations transforms repositories into expert knowledgebases and CRM systems that tell end users “how to do the next step best.” The next step in breaking out of the CRM shoebox is to offer the expert knowledge to end users in any system they work from. Information in the CRM one-stop-shop is helpful to a call center agent who lives in three or four CRM screens all day long, but it doesn’t help a field sales rep whose main application is email from their BlackBerry device. The mash-up concept applies here as well. Go beyond embedding your expert CRM knowledgebase to one application; embed it into email, reseller portals, corporate intranets, and any application within your company’s intranet or extranet. This will enable you to deliver expert advice on-demand throughout your value chain.
  4. Encourage a Collaborative Culture: So, once these capabilities are in place, how exactly do you get your employees to dive in? Encourage a collaborative culture. Salespeople are notoriously territorial over their contacts and information, so sharing what is considered proprietary data goes against their nature. This is the shoebox mentality. The sales person that is content to only tap into their own knowledge base is short-sighted. Instead of only relying on their own experiences, reap the benefits of a much bigger pool of collective information. Leverage experiences on how to beat the competition, overcome price objections with proven approaches from others, and so on. Again, organizations have the component capabilities at their disposal; they just need to create an incentive structure to facilitate the behavior. By providing recognition or incentive for individuals to share their personal best practices, organizations will have a better chance of tapping into the collective knowledge of their distributed workforce.

Why Bother?

We are in an economic period where the cost of doing nothing is very high — sales are shrinking because consumers are spending less, staffing levels are frozen or reduced because sales have fallen short of expectations. Organizations that have broken free of the CRM shoebox are able to reduce ramp up time for rookies, improve competitive win rates, and provide expert advice at that “moment of truth” for their reseller channel and throughout their value chain.

By putting these recommendations into action, organizations transform their data and repositories into actionable knowledge for their staff. The value of the knowledgebase grows exponentially with each use. And CRM systems are transformed from systems that say “what to do” to systems that advice on “how to do it best.” Organizations that have taken this approach have made the days of the virtual shoebox a thing of the past.


Dave Batt is CEO of StreetSmarts, a sales effectiveness, channel enablement and knowledge management provider.


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