By Anshu Sharma
Managing customer relationships well is critical for any business. And as a business scales up, it’s important to empower the people who manage these relationships with the best available technology.
This article was partially inspired by my own experience in the technology industry, but also by a recently published book by Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson, Ask Your Developer. In a recent interview with McKinsey & Company, Jeff shared his thoughts on the importance of empowering developers as a way to build and manage customer relationships:
“We wanted to make it so that the software developers of the world, who are building all the websites and the mobile apps and all these innovation experiences, were actually able to build out the customer-engagement touchpoints that are part of those very same products and experiences.”
In this article, I’ll share my thoughts about how the management of customer relationships has evolved over time and is now becoming more developer-centric – and also more attuned to the customer – than ever before.
A brief history of CRM
So, what is a CRM? My perspective on the CRM category, based on my time at Salesforce.com, is pretty expansive: a CRM is any technology that lets customers engage with a brand. What this means to the users of CRM systems has changed since the category was first defined, and will continue to change. Let’s review the history of CRM so far.
The dawn of CRM: IT- and CIO-centric
CRM as a category dates back to the 1990s when Siebel and Scopus created the first CRM systems. These systems were built so that a company’s IT department could install, configure, and implement them, just like all enterprise software offerings of the era.
These CRMs were essentially glorified databases with customized entry forms and reports. Companies would use them to capture details on customers and sales leads, and later query those details for sales and marketing purposes, or for companywide reporting.
The biggest flaw of this first generation of CRM is that these systems were built and sold to the CIO, and then maintained and configured by the IT department. So the primary needs addressed were those of the CIO – needs like companywide reporting, and ensuring the retention of sales leads when salespeople changed roles or companies.
Because of the scale of these systems, only the IT department could configure them, and their priorities were set by their management (the CIO). These systems were difficult to customize and implement. And, because everything was in the hands of the IT department, sales teams found them frustrating and limiting.
So, while it was meant to meet the needs of sales and marketing, this generation of CRM fell short of truly enabling these roles. And with a price tag in the millions, these CRMs were beyond the reach of smaller sales teams and less well-funded companies.
With the CRM needs of most sales and marketing teams unmet in this era, there was an opportunity for Salesforce to transform the CRM market in the next generation.
CRM: The SaaS Generation
Salesforce revolutionized the CRM category by creating the first SaaS CRM. For the first time, sales and marketing organizations didn’t need to rely on IT to purchase, configure, and manage a multi-million dollar CRM product with limited customizability. Instead, they could manage and customize a CRM to drive sales and marketing operations with just a web browser as their client – and no backend servers (or IT department) to worry about.
Faster, cheaper, elastic
Salesforce was much cheaper and faster to deploy than earlier CRMs, so it was viable and useful for more teams and companies than ever before. And as a SaaS product, usage could expand elastically. So, companies only had to pay for what they actually used, instead of licensing and deploying software to meet projected demands.
These factors helped Salesforce to become the leader in the SaaS CRM category, and the first SaaS company to hit $1B in enterprise sales. And because Salesforce has telemetry on the usage of their product, and revenue is tied to actual usage, they had both the motivation and the information required to meet real customer needs. Sales and marketing organizations finally had what they needed.
CRM SaaS becomes ubiquitous
Since the success of Salesforce, the SaaS CRM market has grown to one measured in the tens of billions of dollars. This category now includes not only Salesforce but companies like Zendesk and HubSpot. All of this is great for sales and marketing teams at companies of all sizes and continues to be useful. And some might say that the CRM market has now matured, and there’s nothing left for it but gradual, iterative improvement. “Mission accomplished”, right?
But anyone who thinks the story of CRM transformation is over is wrong. Or rather, they aren’t thinking broadly enough about what CRM is.
The new approach: developer-centric CRM
A new generation of developer-centric CRM technologies is starting to transform how customers engage with digitally-native brands like Uber, Robinhood, and Airbnb. These digitally-native companies might not have a sales team. Some digital brands might not even have a CIO.
But they do have customers, and those customers interact with the brand using technology. And while these technologies aren’t labeled as CRM, at their core, that’s what they are.
For digitally-native companies built and run by developers, the new rule is: Consumers engage with the brand by using their app. So, all functionality needed to process transactions and meet other customer needs should be built into the app.
For these companies, engaging with a customer isn’t about following up on a lead or training and managing a call center. It’s about meeting customer needs through self-service workflows and automation.
The customer relationship in this new paradigm isn’t maintained by IT, or the customer sales manager. At places like Doordash, the whole company is dedicated to managing that customer interaction. And handling those interactions is something that a developer needs to figure out. Across industries, SaaS CRM is gradually being replaced CRM APIs.
CRM APIs everywhere
The new developer-centric CRM technologies provide APIs that developers use to automate all of these aspects of customer engagement with a brand. A few examples illustrate the point:
- Messaging with customers using Twilio: When you receive a text message from your Uber driver, they aren’t using the SMS app on their phone. They are using APIs from Twilio via the Uber driver app. Twilio provides APIs to handle SMS and other types of messaging. This CRM technology also comes into play when you get a message from your airline that your flight is delayed, or from Doordash when your delivery is running late. Their APIs let developers do what a sales team or a call center might do, but with consistency, and at scale.
- Adding new customers with Auth0: When you sign up for a discount brokerage account, Auth0 APIs are sometimes used behind the scenes to create your account and manage access. Onboarding new customers is an important CRM function, and the best authentication APIs make this easy.
- Processing payments with Stripe: No customer interaction is more critical to a business than handling payments from customers. Stripe makes it easy to automate point-of-sale and mobile payments with APIs, and gives developers a lot of ways to customize this experience.
- Ensuring privacy with Skyflow: I co-founded Skyflow to make it easy for companies to isolate and protect sensitive customer data with an intuitive API, so that they can build quickly while maintaining customer privacy and trust. Handling critical data like credit card numbers and social security numbers securely isn’t easy. With Skyflow, companies can meet the customer demand for data privacy while maintaining data usability and focusing on their core value-add.
The customer relationship in this new paradigm isn’t maintained by IT and the customer sales manager. The whole company is dedicated to managing each customer interaction. Handling the details of those interactions is something that a developer needs to figure out how to automate with APIs.
Developer-centric Means Customer-centric
Developer-centric CRM is more customer-centric than previous CRM generations because customers engage with brands when they want to, not when a sales call comes in. And with machine learning and user-driven customization, brand interactions become more customer-centric over time.
This is part of a trend that you see in the evolution of CRM: from no telemetry on customers in the first era, to telemetry on usage by sales and marketing in the SaaS CRM era, to a new CRM APIs era where customer-centric interactions are automated and continuously improved.
Final thoughts: embrace CRM APIs
Tesla provides a good example of using developer-centric and customer-centric CRM. How would you purchase a Tesla? Another Tesla owner sends a referral code that you use to make an appointment in a showroom. After you purchase a Tesla, you can issue referral codes to your friends.
This referral workflow is created by developers, and it’s timed around when you want to interact with the brand. Incoming sales calls and bulk mailers aren’t part of the strategy. Those are blunt instruments.
CRM APIs are about precision, automation, and honing in on what customers want. They let you really listen to your customers: not just what they tweet, but what they do when they use your app. They let you serve customer needs on the customer’s schedule.
Developer-centric CRM is the way forward for businesses. Let’s all join Elon on that journey, if not on a trip to Mars.