Social CRM software is more than just a spin on traditional CRM

Social CRM software is more than just the latest trend in the CRM world. With it, enterprises can intimately engage with their customers and build valuable business relationships.

The word social has become IT's most ubiquitous prefix in the past few years, bolted onto every activity from computing to monitoring; everything from apps to media to network. But social CRM? That's a puzzle on several levels.

Isn't CRM -- customer relationship management -- a social endeavor to begin with? CRM is, after all, about relationships and, therefore, is social by definition.

While the distinction may be semantic quibbling, it's extremely important. Traditional CRM is to social CRM as your high school yearbook is to your high school reunion; as a doctor's patient files are to an examining room. It's not just different information, but information versus communication. Understanding this from the outset can place the elusive and complex initiatives of social CRM within reach.

Traditional vs. social

CRM has established itself as a business standard; an organization's primary framework for securing and strengthening existing customer relationships while providing insight into cultivating ones. As technology has leveled the playing field for organizations of all sizes and in countless domains, retention of customers and growth of sales within the customer base have become critical competitive advantages.

As a consequence, most businesses now invest significantly in CRM, and rightly so. CRM makes other branches of a business better: marketing is more focused, sales more vigorous and product development more efficient and better targeted.

The core mechanism of CRM is specific data collection and analysis. It begins with a deep understanding of the business-customer lifecycle, followed by a sustained observation of the phases of the business's relationship with a customer.

Along the way, there is the meticulous capture of demographic data and customer behavior, which is then analyzed from multiple perspectives. The end result is relational intelligence, insight into opportunities to develop customer relationships beyond immediate sales to and different ones.

Social CRM software is much more than just a bucket of useful data; it provides a highly specialized communications network. It is able to take the insights gained from its traditional cousin and turn them into actionable messaging, thereby opening channels of two-way communication between businesses and customers. This channel is not just for selling, but also for fine-tuning operations and services.

Social CRM software is about engagement and bringing the customer into business processes as a valued participant -- a cultivation of feedback on needs, perception of quality and satisfaction with service. It is a conversation, both individual and collective, between seller and buyer that goes beyond products and payment and into perception and understanding and expectation.

Think of traditional CRM as a stack of books in the hands of an industrious student. It's homework for the clever kid. Extending the homework metaphor, social CRM is a study group on a field trip to a conference: all of the participants are interacting, passing information back and forth and fine-tuning their understanding.

What can social CRM do that traditional CRM can't?

Beyond making the one-way communication of traditional CRM a two-way street, social CRM software allows the enterprise to interact with customers across multiple channels -- exploiting the media by which customers communicate with each other. This is invaluable because it gets to the heart of customer wants, needs, complaints and perspectives far more effectively and meaningfully than mere marketing surveys ever could.

These additional communication pathways go beyond the actual business-customer interaction. By definition, it's a communication that can also tap into what customers are saying to each other -- information just as valuable and actionable as direct customer feedback, if not more. It's like having an issue of Consumer Reports written just for your company by the customers themselves.

The differences (and benefits) go further still. Communicating with customers the same way they communicate with each other makes it possible to leverage that communication for the benefit of the business. By studying the behaviors of customers who can be identified as having influence over others and optimizing operations to nudge them into the role of brand ambassador, enterprises can leverage customer-to-customer communication to achieve an authentic, grass-roots promotion of the brand. And since all of the data is captured via public social channels, it's all transparent and easily audited. Social CRM software makes complete histories easy to come by, making both product and customer relationship lifecycles far more robust.

How does social CRM software work?

Social CRM is about engagement and, specifically, points of engagement. This means using software that captures customer data from social media -- Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn -- and integrating that information with the more conventional feedback mechanisms already in place.

But social CRM software does more than that. Many platforms facilitate messaging by a company into the social media marketplace, creating additional feedback loops through customer-specific forums, surveys and well-targeted announcements. (And, it must be noted, those same channels permit the company to spy on the competition.)

Can social CRM software exist apart from traditional CRM software? Both platforms require considerable buy-in, time, investment and commitment to generate real results. Implementing both would be daunting. The answer is, simply, no: You can't party long-term with people you don't know. Think of social CRM as the topsoil of traditional CRM, the place where things grow. There needs to be water and deep roots, and it all works together in a complicated, but productive, cycle.

The main players in the social CRM sphere

More diverse than its predecessor, the social CRM software marketplace contains an array of vendors and service providers that require a great deal more evaluation and strategic forethought. Social CRM calls for many different approaches, implemented with differing levels of complexity. Today's market leaders include:

HubSpot CRM. This platform's decidedly sales-oriented focus features optimal organization of communication across channels, making follow-up extremely convenient. It's also enterprise-scale, accommodating up to one million contacts while enabling customization of individual deal stages. It also features at-a-glance sales pipeline views.

Jive. Jive was born into the social CRM market, having started as a social intranet technology. Having been around a while, it's stable and well-respected in the industry. Its noteworthy features include applications that reward user participation and deep Facebook connectivity.

Microsoft Dynamics. A giant of the field, Microsoft has leveraged its existing social media assets in Dynamics. It features strong analytics, business intelligence and tracking components, and its facility with social post content and collaborative features is also strong.

Oracle CRM. This rich array of tools includes some functionality seldom found in other products, including user productivity and employee performance metrics. Its On Demand tools leverage social media interactions to empower prospect evaluation and marketing campaigns.

Salesforce CRM. The giant of the field, Salesforce is a highly customizable, cloud-based social CRM solution with a huge and enthusiastic user community. Its effectiveness in customer profiling is well-established, but its effective implementation requires considerable front-end evaluation.

SAP CRM. This cloud-based platform features broad brand analysis functionality and sophisticated social engagement. More unique is its Social Contact Intelligence product, which gathers social sentiment data and feeds it directly into campaigns in progress.

SugarCRM. Though not very large, SugarCRM has survived more than a decade in the market by offering multiple editions of its sales and marketing suite. Role-based performance metrics and dashboards that use real-time external feeds keep the platform competitive.

Zendesk. Service is the primary emphasis of this suite, which features strong data gathering tools for scrutinizing the customer experience that it feeds directly into performance metrics it gathers on customer support. This one-two punch collates data that can be exported to other systems.

Zoho CRM. An upstart, Zoho's primary strength is broad, multichannel support. It tracks many ongoing conversations across those channels and enables real-time customer contact backed by accessible history for quick research. It also features the very useful ability to set listening streams on important and promising contacts out in the social universe.

Where to from here?

Social CRM is not only redefining customer relationships, but is remolding long-standing business processes. It's a game changer in an increasingly competitive world and seems more and more indispensable each year. But the truth is, it's not for everyone. Adopting social CRM and implementing social CRM software is a formidable undertaking on its face, and it's not for the faint of heart, as it requires serious commitment. For some, that commitment may or may not be feasible, and the internal culture change required to make it work may be impractical.

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