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Are engineers the next wave of CRM users?

Social networks and the expanded use of CRM are bringing engineers and product development people into contact with customers. Is that a good thing, and is it worth it?

At Stratus Technologies, it's not uncommon for engineers at the company to access the CRM system. In fact, it's encouraged.

"We have a culture where, even in the old days, engineers could have access to the call center database," said Joe Gravese, CIO of the Maynard, Mass.-based server and storage vendor. "What they're doing is monitoring what's happening with customers and responding to people."

Stratus is not alone. Increasingly, employees outside the traditional CRM triumvirate of sales, customer service and marketing are accessing -- and getting value from -- CRM systems.

Take the Cancer Centers of America. The Schaumburg, Ill.-based company provides specialized care for cancer patients at several centers around the country. The company tracks certain identifiers about patient data in a Microsoft CRM system in order to provide its specialized care.

"We track what they like to eat, their children and grandchildren -- all these soft touch-points -- so we can build care around those patients," said Chris Berry, senior application analyst with information technology at the company.

The Cancer Centers of America are also subject to HIPAA laws, however, meaning there's some information that cannot be tracked in the CRM system. An insurance verification team is accessing both that HIPAA data and Microsoft CRM, and Berry said he's happy to provide CRM licenses for those employees.

"It makes the most sense," he said. “That's where they spend their whole day.”

Social networks opening CRM to more users

Companies for years have promoted themselves as "customer-centric" and tried to put the customer experience at the center of the business, but now social networks like Facebook and Twitter are making it easier than ever to monitor and connect with customers. And, when intelligent search tools are layered on top of these networks and customer communities, it's providing insight that can go directly to engineering or product development.

"The intelligent search tools seem to be doing a great job of extracting that 'voice of the customer' or 'wisdom of the crowd' or whatever phrase you want to choose," said John Ragsdale, vice president of research with the Service and Support Professionals Association. "They're adding this social layer. It's delivering this actionable insight."

For example, engineering and product development can now get much faster and much easier access to things like the most requested bug fix or feature enhancement.

"There's a lot of clickstream analysis that has long been used by marketing and sales that has not been used in service," Ragsdale said. "Those are the tools bringing product management and development closer to the customer."


Are new CRM users ready?

Bringing more employees into the CRM system brings with it some questions, however. In particular, do you want to pay for licenses for them, and do you really want these people interacting with customers?

At Stratus, Gravese was able to use excess seat licenses for a planned second rollout of the system that had not yet launched. So, when launched its Chatter collaboration platform, Gravese signed Stratus on to be a beta customer because his engineering team was looking for collaboration tools. They began using the Chatter collaboration feature and also delved into service records. And they liked it. So Gravese plans to keep them on the licenses.

"It's adding value to the company," he said. "I'm trying to figure out how to make it sort of permanent. It's sort of a win-win all around. Engineers gain better visibility into the customers, and it helps customer service. Now, it's an issue for me how to bring them into this world."

Indeed, for some call center managers, the idea of involving engineers in customer service conjures up scary images of a belligerent techie sucking down Jolt Cola and talking down to valuable customers.

"It's sort of an interesting dilemma," Ragsdale said. "Development and engineers aren't necessarily the ones I would want working directly with customers. It does open the door to customer service skills training. What sort of position papers or guidelines should be in place for how employees work with customers? It's not a set of skills I think every developer has."

According to Ragsdale, Novell was an early experimenter with this. It created customer communities that discussed Novell products, and experts were tasked with solving their problems and given a direct line into development at the company.

In fact, software development and high tech is well out in front of most other industries.

"There are a lot of ways that development is being forced to be customer facing for the first time," Ragsdale said. "It depends on the culture of the company. Clearly Salesforce and the on-demand vendors and with some of the newer, smaller companies, the developers are working directly with customers. In the old days of enterprise hardware and software, there was a lull there. Even if developers wanted to work with customers, they went through support, and I think that wall’s been completely broken down."

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