Tribal Knowledge vs. the 360-Degree View

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Institutional knowledge is a weird thing—part professional know-how, part company culture, part lessons learned, and part collective unconscious. In large professional organizations, I’ve seen that pool of knowledge emerge from the ether as peer mentoring, in-house training, well-defined project methodology, and industry reputation. When you’re working in specialty retail, “institutional knowledge” is the rumor mill.

I spent six years working part time in a bookstore. For better or worse, that early professional experience has become the benchmark against which I evaluate my working life. Sometimes I miss it. Sometimes I’m grateful to be away. And most of the time, I wish I could go back and do it better. This blog is the first installment in a series, CRM & The Cost of Doing Nothing, in which I’ll discuss the value that a CRM system, such as Salesforce, can provide when it comes to obtaining a 360-Degree view of the customer, using my experience as a bookseller as a test case.

Probably everyone who’s ever worked in the service industry would say the same thing about their customers, but readers are strange people. Being one myself, I feel I can say that. We had a customer, an elderly lady who wore see-through animal-print nightgowns and lurked around corners. We had a priest who came in the last Friday of every month to gossip about his parishioners with the staff. We had Doctor Who Lady. And we had Dr. Jordan. For the staff, these weren’t so much people, as they were mythical creatures.

They were also lucrative constituents with whom it was important to manage a thoughtful relationship. If you could find a free chair somewhere in the store and drag it to wherever Nightgown was browsing, she’d buy out the section. Pretending you were on break so that you could gossip with the priest usually meant he’d leave the cafe with enough baked goods to feed a convent. All of Doctor Who Lady’s requests needed to be ordered, and you could never offer to hold them longer than the standard two weeks after they were delivered. Dr. Jordan spent more money in the store than half of our other customers combined and was the only person from whom we’d accept a personal check.

The trouble with that sort of specific, odd, personal detail is that it’s ephemeral. It’s hard-won and easily lost to time and turn-over; and invariably, it’s only a small part of the story. I knew that Dr. Jordan was a medical doctor and an art history buff. Someone else knew that he spoke several European languages. Someone else used to listen to him complain about how he was running out of shelf space. And someone else chatted him up one slow day and found out that he was on the board of no fewer than four community improvement committees, all of which had an educational component.

It’s the sort of situation in which a CRM system such as Salesforce wouldn’t have been just organizational but synergistic. Despite the fact that the majority of our customers used loyalty cards that tracked enough data about reading preferences and contact information to justify a system above and beyond our single massive spreadsheet, no one ever pitched the idea of a CRM solution to our owner. Even if someone had, I imagine she would have shot it down. She was a big believer in streamlining, and I think she would have seen a CRM database as putting information we already knew into a different format.

What it really would have been doing was reorganizing data so that it was comprehensive and primed for analysis. It took me almost a decade of casual conversations to get something approaching a complete view of Dr. Jordan as a customer, half of which occurred after I’d changed jobs and was no longer in a position to cross-sell him anything. But the potential was there. We could have set up an institutional account and supplied the materials for his community education programs. We could have created a foreign language section. We could have introduced him to the brave new world of ereaders. It’s an opportunity I’m still a little bitter we missed, and I’m sure for every customer we thought we knew something about, there was another.

That’s the difference between professional life with Salesforce and professional life without Salesforce. Tribal knowledge means each individual has access to a mental database of anecdotes; while a CRM solution ensures everyone has access to an actual database of shared information, creating a 360 degree view of your customers and your business. Stay tuned for Part II of this series where I discuss CRM by the numbers, focusing on efficiency gains and time savers you can realize via CRM.

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AndyWhitehouseAuthor: Andy Whitehouse

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