CRM in an Age of Change

Jeremy Rifkin is a provocative futurist and author of a new book, The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism. The title makes me think about the future of CRM. We should think about our future, because change is always with us, and thinking that change is for the other guy and not ourselves is just so much whistling past the graveyard.

Rifkin's thesis, in a nutshell, is that "We are in the midst of an epic change in the nature of work. The First Industrial Revolution ended slave and serf labor. The Second Industrial Revolution dramatically shrank agricultural and craft labor. The Third Industrial Revolution is sunsetting mass wage labor in the manufacturing and service industries and salaried professional labor in large parts of the knowledge sector."

It's a well-taken point, and I think that CRM is right in the crosshairs of service and professional industries. With IBM's Watson winning Jeopardy! and computers outclassing doctors in diagnosis and lawyers in discovery, can there be much hope for the call center and service agents? Perhaps yes, but the future service center won't be your grandmother's service center for certain. With machines offloading nearly all of the work involved in helping customers get their products to work properly, a great new opportunity opens up that requires skilled people to help others figure out what they want to do next.

A good example might be the Web site, a how-to destination for people trying to develop skills in a variety of arts and crafts—fine, domestic, and otherwise. What's interesting about the site is that the tutorials available there drive consumption, and a baked-in e-commerce function enables you to buy what you see in demonstration/tutorial videos.

This is online education not unlike a service center for certain Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), though too often we think of online education as something for serious students and not people doing crafts. But if you think about it from the perspective of a business supplying materials to a specialized market, it makes sense. Through the site, the business can promote demand as well if not better than conventional sales, marketing, and service organizations.

At the confluence of all this, I see changing roles for CRM and its users. Service becomes more of a way to help customers reach the full potential of their use and consumption and thus a kind of sales arm. You can say much the same for marketing, as a tutorial can easily inspire some people to try a new idea.

Regardless, with crowdsourcing, big data, analytics, social, and other self-directed technologies in our lives, we have a decreasing need for the kind of break-fix assistance that was once the heart of customer service. That's a good thing, because it will be easier, once customers have a base level of knowledge, to retain them by offering what's next in easily consumable bits, and the marginal cost of the next sale will be close to Rifkin's zero.

Whenever a paradigm changes, one of the first things we consider is how the shift will negatively affect us. That's natural and, given past history, even quite rational. But when I read authors such as Rifkin, rather than being concerned, I am intrigued by the unique possibilities that change makes possible.

Not long ago, we thought that the end of CRM was a successful transaction; then we thought it was leaving a positive impression through the customer experience. Those might have been right, but tomorrow the end seems more like bonding customers to a business or a brand through a shared experience and making future sales second thought. Call it community. I think all this is headed in a very interesting direction that will continue to call on our CRM expertise and require us to develop even more skills.