We’ve been talking at this blogsite about the potential of Social customer relationship management (CRM), in which typical CRM – an internally generated and maintained collection of knowledge about customers and their interactions with a company – is enhanced with information streaming in from the virtual communities that now are part of many customers’ experiences.

As part of my work with Insurance Networking News, I had the opportunity to talk with insurance executives and analysts about the viability of Social CRM within this industry, which relies intensely on trust and the goodwill of customers. Frankly, it was difficult to identify insurance companies that had Social CRM programs that they were willing to talk about at this early stage.

I spoke with Craig Beattie, analyst with Celent, who observes that much of the push toward Social CRM is currently coming from the vendor side: “Insurers aren’t really thinking about this yet. The kinds of offerings you get from vendors tend to focus on views of the customer, with all their emails, phone calls and policies, and alongside that, Facebook entries or tweets that might be relevant – a blending with public data, to get some idea of the kind of conversations people might be having. We haven’t seen insurers employ it yet for underwriting purposes, pricing purposes, or getting along better with clients.”

Current survey data shows Social CRM to still be in its infancy – though its likely uptake may be fast and furious over the next few years. A  recent survey of 3,342 marketing directors by MarketingSherpa found that six percent of companies already had functioning Social CRM efforts underway, but a whopping 56 percent were planning such initiatives in the near future. Gartner, in the meantime, predicts 30 percent of companies will extend their social networking efforts to Social CRM processes within the next two years.

One company that is leading the way on this front is Farmers Insurance, which began its Social CRM effort in earnest last fall. I spoke with Marc Zeitlin, vice president of eBusiness at Farmers Insurance, about the effort, which involves the sharing of information, via Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn among its network of 15,000 agents, enables the company to better compete against direct-to-consumer insurers. And the effort is delivering along many fronts, according to Zeitlin: “We’re driving growth and new business, as well as customer retention. We also gain product knowledge and service. We’re able to determine whether there’s a need in the market that we’re not meeting.”

Ultimately, Social CRM will lose its cachet, simply becoming a part of normal CRM.  But until then, the industry has just begun to explore the possibilities this new dimension of data provides.

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