Businesses will ultimately be able to create a single view of their customers, which includes their comments on Twitter, and how they interact with the company on the web and through mobile devices, Gartner predicts.

But many businesses are missing out because they view social networking as another sales and support channel, rather than a way of understanding their customers, says Jim Davies, the Gartner research director in an interview with Computer Weekly.

“We think that is missing the point,” said Jim Davies, chairman of Gartner’s CRM summit in March. “Over the past decade CRM has been about management of the customer. With social media, its about relationships.”

He advises CIOs to incorporate social media into their CRM strategies to help their organisations gain a better understanding of the mood of their customers, their needs, aspirations, what they like and what they don’t like.

“Most companies have a master data management strategy. As an action item they should look how to embrace new data channels – the data associated with a customer’s mobile presence, web presence and social media. That is a big challenge,” said Davies.

By doing so, businesses will be able to differentiate themselves from competitors by offering better customer service – an increasingly important factor for companies selling commodity products.

“There is a lot of effort going into improving customer experience. It’s key to get consistency across different channels so their experience does not vary,” he says.

“Its about capturing the voice of the customer. It’s that ability to listen to the customer and act on what they say. That could be through a survey, a tweet or a conversation with a call centre agent. The key is to bring all these elements together to find out what customers are saying.”

Major CRM suppliers, such as Oracle/Seibel, Microsoft, Salesforce.com and Pegasystems are working to develop social media capabilities in their CRM systems.

But small specialist companies are taking the lead. The market leaders are Jive and Lithium, which have a broad set of social technologies.

“Their challenge is to integrate into CRM processes because they are not CRM vendors at heart. The classic CRM vendors will be stronger in the long-term,” Davies says.

The technology needed to analyse social media is also at an early stage. Companies like ClickFox, Attensity, and Nice Systems, are looking to become “voice of the customer” hubs.

“There are a lot of companies doing customer surveys, speech analysis, and social media, but they are not yet putting those together to get a single view for the voice of the customer. That is what these hubs are trying to offer,” says Davies.

He advises CIOs to develop a social media strategy to work out which services the organisation should offer customers on mobile devices, and what this means from a technology point of view.

“Logically, how do you approach getting a single view of the customer voice? You can either do that by ripping out all your systems and trying to buy a system that does it all. Or by using a virtual system that can bring all the silos together.

“The Nirvana is to have a centralised approach, but that is not yet possible, so you need a hybrid approach.”

Mobile devices and the business

Mobile devices will have a dramatic impact on the way businesses interact with their customers, Gartner predicts.

“On the customer service side, rather than having to ring up a support centre, you will be able to speak a virtual assistant on your phone. It will analyse your speech, go to a master database and give you the answer.”

Technology will make it possible for banking customers to obtain their bank balance instantly from a virtual assistant, without having to go online or wait on the phone to access a call centre, for example.

Retailers will be able to exploit the GPS capabilities of mobile phones to direct customers to their nearest store, or alert them to discounts when they are near an outlet.

“I was talking to one automotive company recently. If you have a slashed tyre, you normally have to go to a support centre. Now, you can take a picture of your slashed tyre. They can determine what car you have, what tyres you have, and send you a video showing you how to change your tyre,” he says.

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