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Long, long ago, Customer Relationship Management (CRM) was the ugly duckling of business applications. Companies couldn’t manage their relationships through CRM because data points, reports, and workflows are not relationship building tools. Sales people couldn’t build relationships through CRM because it made them a slave to a closed loop system. Customers couldn’t engage through CRM because it sat firmly on the side of the vendor. And so it went that CRM tools would have a topsy turvy relationship between companies and customers, until one day a divining visionary, who would think six impossible things before breakfast, thought, what is the use of CRM without pictures or conversations? That night he fell into a deep, deep sleep where he had a vivid dream….

This is a story about how CRM tools currently add value to business relationships through omni-channel collaborative networks and how further value could be extended through collaboration with smart autonomous products. Marc Benioff, aka the SaaS Father, previously talked about bringing the customer into the heart of the business. If we go down that rabbit hole, one of the potential outcomes might be how smart autonomous products will follow the customer into the core of the business. In this wonderland, CRM vendors could construct new layers of collaborative value to enable their sales people to act as customer product strategists. Through this looking glass is a new form – Product Relationship Management. The possible early stages of this new paradigm were outlined by Marc Benioff’s chat with Toyota’s CEO as quoted in Forbes online 15/08/2013.

‘And why don’t you say that car is going to be different because it’s going to be a cloud car, it’s going to be a collaborative car. It’s going to be a mobile car. It’s going to be a social car. And that car is going to talk to the factory, do real-time interaction with the factory. It will do real time interaction with dealers. It’s going to talk to other drivers. The car can also talk to the driver and give feedback to them.’

What makes this statement interesting is that it neatly underlines’s ‘customer company’ strategy.


This strategy enables Salesforce.coms’ customers to use an interconnected, collaborative, omni-channel presence to bring their customers into the centre of their business. By building a cross collaborative relationship at executive sponsor, engineering, legal and other levels value is created through shortened sales cycles, closer opportunity engagements and most crucially, by acting as a catalyst for long, enduring, agile relationships. The next obvious question is; how will CRM tools help manage smart autonomous products?

Managing Smart Autonomous Products.

The answer to this question starts with understanding what smart autonomous products are. The Harvard Business Review offers us a well-developed insight that layers the nuances nicely. In essence, smart autonomous products, are products that are connected via the internet in a many-to-many relationship with other enabled products. A good example might be a car ‘Hello Michael’ that helps solves crimes. No seriously, a car that connects to a fuel pump that could alter the engine depending on the length of the journey. The journey is then mapped and tracked for driving safety via a navigation device. The product’s autonomy is created through this inter-connectivity. In other words, a type of machine learning takes place where the products grow curiouser and curiouser to the point where they will ask this key question of themselves. Who in the world am I?

Products that learn will ask, ‘how can I innovate?’ Products that learn will ask, ‘where do I go to innovate?’ Products that learn will ask, ‘who will help me innovate?’ In this environment, CRM vendors could create product-based app exchanges that could act as leverage for sales people to add value as customer product strategists after an autonomous product finds its way into the business. Out of this confluence of interconnectedness an alliance would form between the CRM vendor sales person, the customer, and a smart autonomous product collaborating via a deeply assimilated CRM experience. After all, very few things indeed are really impossible.

Divining the Future.

In a world of empowered customers, 70 percent of the way down the buying process before talking to a sales person, and the increasing zero touch sales process model being touted by many SaaS companies, CRM tools risk becoming a sexy rolodex, version 3.0, unless they view products as an extension of the customer.

Emerging from his dream the visionary sat and pondered how he would realise this new CRM tool. Breakfast was only five impossible thoughts away…



by Mark Power


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