The year we have just started looks to be at least as strange as the one just completed. For me the big tipoff is that public companies have thrown their collective hands in the air and told the financial analysts that they can’t even guess what their quarterly numbers might look like. Not being able to give guidance to Wall Street is certainly an eye-popping trend but, believe it or not, it has a bright side too.
The financial and economic events of late 2008 have set the proverbial bar at an incredibly low level, which could mean that it will be easy to exceed expectations. A word of caution though, exceeding very low expectations might not be enough to keep your boat afloat, so we all need to pull hard on the oars. Here are some thoughts on what it all might mean for CRM.
Cheap and easy does it
Everybody is going to be looking for a deal and why not. With budgets slashed or non-existent, customers are really going to mean it when they tell you to sharpen your pencil. One area where low cost has almost become a religion in the last decade is business software and a significant reason has been the success of on-demand computing.
As we all know, on-demand was made to be low cost at inception and throughout its useful life. But while on-demand certainly has the attention of the market, there are still large areas where it has barely made inroads for a variety of reasons. Ten years is a long time in the technology business and junior people who grew up with on-demand are entering more productive parts of their careers. Look for young leaders to more aggressively champion on-demand generally and also look for the avant-guard among them to push the ball further.
Mashups and other integrations of on-demand business applications with new fangled Web 2.0/social applications will start to take off for several reasons. First of all, the economic conditions make people more willing to try unproven solutions simply because they have little to lose. The cost of failure with these applications—delivered on-demand—is almost nothing so why not try something? This is a time for innovation and because it is, I expect to see a lot of strange sounding software amalgamations hit the street. Some of them will become commonplace within a few years.
Platforms both the technology and the business idea will continue to be hot and I think what constitutes a platform will be a moving target. Squishy definitions in other words will reign and the reasons are simple. We already see numerous on-demand services that call themselves platforms but they relate to each other like horses and zebras at best. Salesforce.com is the godfather of platforms and the company provides an application development and deployment environment that is right down the middle of the plate. But look to either side and you have companies like Facebook offering a social networking platform, Amazon offering compute and storage services and Google offering productivity apps.
All of these vendors assert they have platforms but each is more different from the others than it is similar. But no matter, I thought I would never see vendors working so hard to cooperate and play nice but that’s exactly what is going on in the platform space. Vendors are making every effort to ensure that their platforms interoperate. It’s exactly the opposite of what typically happens when companies create new infrastructures. For example, Westinghouse was all about AC current and Edison wanted DC and no one could agree on track gauges when railroads were new. The twenty-first century isn’t like that and that’s a good thing.
Putting it all together
So what does all this mean for a struggling economy and getting to the point where we can give the financial analysts something they can believe in again? Simple, there has never been a better time to innovate in the front office. To get started, there are tools aplenty that are free or cheap. They give license to business innovators to try things, to invent business processes that are right for the times.
For example, as I have written elsewhere, layaway is coming back to retail. Ironically, it disappeared for all practical purposes long before very many retailers could develop automation for the business process. The predictable result is that retailers bringing back layaway are causing a mini-boom in the filing cabinet business. But this is a perfect application for a platform-based application. Who’s building it?
If layaway works, what about an expanded role for vendor financing? Today vendors make silly offers of no payments or no interest but that doesn’t keep the cash flowing and it doesn’t work if the vendor can’t find financing for the scheme. All the more reason for making it possible for vendors to collect something on a regular basis, but it will take software.
Vendor financing is just one example and there are plenty of others that only practitioners within a company’s lines of business might see. So get out there, innovate, that will be the theme of 2009. Or as Pooh might say, “Think, think, think!”