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When you’re at sea, you take navigation very seriously. The 360-degree arc of the compass is the tool by which you take a bearing and understand where you are going, especially when you’re out of sight of land. It’s a constant number that relates to the compass -- both the magnetic and gyroscopic compasses, if you’re on a ship.

It also refers to the way lookouts report the things they see -- always in relation to the ship, with the bow of the ship representing 0 degrees/360 degrees. Having a 360-degree view of what’s out at sea with you is critical to avoiding hazards, collisions and other unfortunate events.

In the context of CRM, that metaphor is frequently employed. Every vendor likes to claim that its application provides a 360-degree view of the customer, implying that no bit of customer information affecting selling, loyalty, support or marketing is not captured.

That metaphor is imperfect at best. And I’m not saying that because I spent six years at sea as a bosun’s mate.

Don't Believe in Mirages

I say it because there are factors that render the metaphor obsolete. Accepting the metaphor at face value requires one to make assumptions that are not valid about the completeness of customer information you can collect. At the same time, technology is making the metaphor obsolete. If you don’t appreciate this and stick to the idea that a “360-degree view” described by your vendor is really a complete view of everything that you need to know, it will prove dangerous to your business.

Let’s start with those assumptions. First off, believing that CRM captures all the critical data about customers assumes that the only important information about customers is transactional data -- the things we can readily record, track and organize through technology. Clearly, this is a mistaken assumption. There are many things about the customer that might directly affect our ability to sell or market to them that are not recorded in a historical accounting of their past activities. A customer's financial travails, relationship woes or health issues may have a direct effect on their buying behavior.

Businesses have no way of knowing those things, however. So the idea of a 360-degree view may be reassuring and a good concept to use while selling technology, but it’s a mirage.

There are other things about your customers that are transactional but which you won't spot unless you know to look for them -- small but important things that can determine the outcome of your journey with that customer. They are often captured in systems siloed between sales and marketing and thus are never really part of a unified view of the customer.

For example, very few companies do a good job of understanding how people use their corporate websites. Similarly, even in companies with fully-realized content marketing plans, few have the ability to know what each visitor has looked at or examine the pathways customers follow through the content. On the sales side of the equation, unless sales reps are extremely diligent, specific information they learn about their customers discovered in their conversations with them may never become part of the customer record. Each missed opportunity to build understanding of the customer shaves degrees off that 360-degree arc.

Visibility Doesn't Spell Relationship

The other issue that condemns the concept of the 360-degree customer view is that, as technology allows us to understand and measure more about customers, the arc itself is getting bigger. A decade ago, the idea of social media listening was not considered in the 360-degree view, nor was the concept of “the Internet of Things.”

As the age of analysis continues, business realizes it can monitor and measure more and more things about each customer. The number of metrics that shed light on customer behaviors is increasing rapidly. A business can have most of the 360-arc nailed down today only to find tomorrow that technology has revealed areas where it never thought to look for greater understanding. The metaphor can’t handle that -- either technology is adding degrees to the arc (a 420-degree circle?) or the space between each degree is getting wider.

The other thing that the 360-view metaphor misses is that a complete customer view, by itself, is not that useful. It needs to be connected to a culture in the business that acknowledges that converting knowledge into a human relationship is the objective. The customer record is not the customer -- it’s a set of shorthand points that can help businesses better relate to the customer, but the record is just an aid in establishing and nurturing a human relationship. Missing that last point is like saying you have a relationship with your neighbor because your kitchen window looks into his backyard. You may have visibility into significant aspects of his life, but that isn’t a genuine relationship.

The 360-degree metaphor has always been at best an ideal. It has served well in illustrating the objective of knowing who your customers are to help with sales and loyalty. But the very suggestion that you can have complete knowledge of your customers is silly on its face, especially as we discover new ways customers are communicating with and about the companies with which they do business. Instead of striving for a complete view, strive to listen better and to the correct things. And then take what you’ve learned to build not a data-driven relationship, but a human relationship with customers, bolstered by data.

Title image by Rennett Stowe (Flickr) via a CC BY 2.0 license