People frequently ask me what’s next in CRM. I have a lot of knowledge because I take a lot of vendor briefings, so it’s a fair question but my understanding highly imperfect because what’s next is a moving target. I’m better at declaring what might happen in five years than what will happen this year.
The next thing in CRM is often thought to be another bit of technology; something that enables you to do something in business that you couldn’t do before, or to do something better, faster and cheaper. There are great examples of all this, though in the last five or more years the suite has gotten rather massive, so I wonder how many more new technologies we can cram in without upsetting the balance.
The CRM paradigm is changing in at least two dimensions.
First, there’s the increasing proliferation of vertical industry solutions that can greatly help big corporations which, though they have big IT departments, don’t want to go down the road of building and maintaining a completely custom solution.
Vertical industries are a nice saddle point because they deliver a lot of functionality on a platform that can let users iteratively prototype further improvements and generate code. They also get down into the weeds and need more training in many cases. More on that in a moment.
Second, a bit further down the food chain, medium and large companies are taking platform-based CRM and making similar adjustments, though they might not go all-in on vertical solutions. For instance, a company that’s focused on a domestic market might have less need for a vertical market package. These companies might still have the challenge of getting all employees on the same page.
All of this leads me to conclude that there’s already so much tech available that it becomes difficult to see the white space. Most importantly though, is the reality I’ve documented in my research that users aren’t close to maximizing what they already have, in part because they often don’t know about all of their current capabilities.
Systems Unmasked by the Pandemic
My recent research drew me to examine the issue of user uptake and the pandemic turns out to have been a good time for that. I’m not going to name names because that’s counterproductive, but the pandemic exposed a gap between haves and have nots in the area of training systems.
We’ve been pursuing training or learning, depending on your world view, for decades, almost as long as CRM has been a thing. Early systems and methods depended on online help, training and maybe some tutorials. All of this was predicated on assumptions such as all employees report to the same building — or at least could — for training purposes.
Also, many vendors relied on their belief that their systems were intuitive, a big mistake. Even my iPhone isn’t intuitive; it’s pretty good but we all know that feeling of discovery when we make a mistake that discloses new functionality. Nothing’s intuitive if you’ve said the words, “I didn’t know it could do that.”
So, given the pandemic and the large number of us working remotely for the first time, I decided to ask what vendors offered to strategically keep the workforce synchronized on best practices and uses using indirect methods.
To no surprise, most of what I found was reliance on direct training or instruction which included recordings of training sessions and slide decks. That’s okay until it’s not; and the pandemic showed us how quickly our best assumptions could be proven wrong.
Keeping this in mind, I wanted to know about products that could be used independently by users, what if anything they cost, what they did, and if third parties could use them to develop training sessions or if only the primary vendor could. What I found was generally quite good though only a few vendors had taken on learning full bore. Two vendors that caught my eye were Salesforce and Zoho.
In 2014, Salesforce introduced Trailhead; a tool initially focused on teaching novices how to develop and maintain apps on the Salesforce platform.
Today, Trailhead is available in two packages: original Trailhead which remains free to users, and myTrailhead, an added cost item. The big differences are that the original Trailhead is focused on teaching users about the Salesforce platform, while myTrailhead is a more open product that enables users to develop courses.
There’s also a Trailhead Academy supported by certified Trailhead instructors.
The measure of success in learning a topic on Trailhead involves taking an exam and earning a badge. The more badges a person can claim, the deeper their knowledge and the more valuable that person is in the job market.
Some numbers: there are 2.8 million learners in various stages of learning and specialization on Trailhead and they have earned an aggregate total of 33 million badges.
Since myTrailhead is a purchasable product, the company is less open about sharing the secret sauce. That said, myTrailhead features include monthly live webinars (Accelerator) and three ways to get going creating content:
- Salesforce Enablement Services: Expert support for every step in the content development journey
- Prebuilt Content Kits: Out-of-the-box content for Sales Cloud and Service Cloud, and role-based training
- Online learning: Self-Salesforce Enablement Services
It’s not my purpose to go into every nook and cranny of myTrailhead; it would take too long, and this is not an ad for Salesforce. But what’s striking is that Trailhead and myTrailhead seem very well suited to the needs of the pandemic where it has been critically important to keep employees and customers grounded and engaged by enabling them to build and consume learning programs that are most important to them.
The rough Zoho equivalent of Trailhead is Zoho Spark, the company’s learning management system (LMS) which is transitioning from Moodle to the company’s own LMS. Zoho Spark consists of online courses that anyone can take at their own pace and they are available both as text and video.
Critical to any learning mode is testing and validation which Zoho does through self-assessment.
Zoho also covers the waterfront with an array of other learning opportunities from tutorials, how-to videos and e-books — all designed to be available online to help users ramp up quickly, with no need to be in one place for learning.
The company appears to have a good selection of self-paced modules, all of which is supplemented by learning opportunities at various shows the company sponsors.
Indeed, most vendors devote part of their user group meetings to education. However, in the season of coronavirus, less travel has sent customers to the online resources in greater numbers.
While virtually every vendor has some amount of support for people learning its products, there are no standards. Therefore, like everything else about CRM, it’s wise to do your own analysis.
Also, the needs of end users will be different from those of partners who expect to build apps on top of vendor platforms. For them, the ability to use a training solution that enables them to teach the fine points of using their solutions is very important.
As the CRM solution set continues to grow, it’s likely that training systems will be increasingly important. That growth has the effect of converging vendor functionality at roughly the same place, making tertiary product attributes like training systems important differentiators.
Taking all of this into account, my imperfect idea about what’s next in CRM is not a new customer-facing app — but one that faces employees.