Remember when the front office and the back office were separate things? When the folks who actually spoke to the customers had to dress nicely and even bathe daily, and use manners and speak in clear and coherent sentences, because they were the only representatives your customers would ever see?

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And, at the same time, the people in the back office could be unwashed, antisocial cretins for all you cared, because who was going to see them, anyway?

Those times never really existed, but the traditional dichotomy of front office/back office as propagated by the business software industry was built on that cartoonish vision of two classes of employees.

It worked, to a degree, because businesses still controlled the access points by which customers communicated: they made contact through marketing or through sales, and much later through support. Your company’s engineers, accountants, production people and other back-office folks could be as weird as they wanted, because the public would never see them, or so many business leaders thought.

You Are No Longer in Control

That control over the channels of contact has collapsed. As IDC analyst Mike Fauscette said in a talk last week, “’customer facing’ is now everybody.” The channels of contact no longer belong to the business; they’re owned jointly with the customer, and the customers are creating new ones on their own all the time.

Maybe they know someone who works in your accounting department. Maybe they've discovered an email of someone who works on an aspect of your business that they’re interested in. Or maybe they’re using a traditional channel through sales or marketing -- but they've used their communities and the Internet to come armed with a wealth of information, perhaps with more than your salespeople or marketers have at their disposal.

It’s now an information arms race between businesses and customers. While the salesman used to be the conduit of information that could drive a sale, customers now drive themselves most of the way toward a buying decision. They reach out to complete the decision – and often not in the directions you may expect.

So what do you do?

Moving Beyond Current CRM Boundaries

In all things related to customer relationship management (CRM), don’t start with the technology – start with the people. The days when you could hide a curmudgeon behind the scenes are dwindling. Instead, you need to make sure everyone in your organization understands they’re there to serve the customer, and that they may be the one that makes the customer contact that leads to a sale.

That’s not because they’re "in sales," it’s because they work for your business and customers may make their initial contact with them, which may lead to a hand-off to sales at some point down the road.

It’s not enough to instill attitude without information. That’s why it’s also critical to break CRM out of its current isolation within sales and marketing (and sometimes support). If everyone is now customer facing, everyone is likely to have occasion to need to learn about the customers they’re interacting with. Similarly, everyone may discover details about a customer or potential customer that belong in the CRM system.

I’m not necessarily advocating that businesses buy a seat of CRM software for every single employee -- even with cost-effective applications, that could be a tough financial pill to swallow. But there should be strategic expansion of CRM within businesses -- to customer-facing people in parts of the business who often find themselves interacting with customers, and who may act as gatekeepers for fellow employees who need customer information.

The classic example of this is the field service technician; that worker is certainly in a customer-facing role, but only recently has the job been appreciated for having a direct connection to sales. While he’s out solving problems, it’s only natural that customers select him as a channel of contact.

There’s no longer an assumption that the service tech knows nothing beyond his job; because customer expectations are evolving, he’s now seen as a representative of the entire business. The customer expects him to know the answer to a question, or to be able to find that answer quickly.

Another example: a customer calls your finance department and says that the billing terms of a contract aren't what was stipulated by the sales person who closed the deal. How does the finance person understand what sales has articulated to the customer without some access to CRM data?

Here’s a third example: One of your engineers gets a comment on his blog asking about a service issue with your company’s product. Before he answers, he should have access to see what kind of support contract the customer has signed. After all, he’s being contacted as a representative of your business -- and the customer has expectations. If the customer has paid for 24/7 service, your engineer/blogger can forward him to the support team on duty at the time. If he discovers the customer paid for no support, he can recommend him to your sales team for a possible up-sell.

CRM was long heralded as the technology that would break down information silos within businesses. It can succeed in doing that -- but, by definition, it can only succeed if it’s not contained within departments or restricted to traditional users.

Breaking through these restrictions requires a company-wide re-evaluation of roles and of the routes customers use to reach you, but if you succeed in expanding CRM’s footprint the result will be employees who seem better informed and who are better poised to capitalize on sales opportunities -- even if they aren't in sales.

Image courtesy of Kachalkina Veronika (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Always entertaining, Chris knows his CRM. Read his The Three P's of Avoiding Social CRM Failure