Saturday, July 16, 2011

Erin Brockovich, Social CRM and Why Chatter is Not a Social Tool

As there is buzz about the cloud ( there is also a buzz about something called Social CRM. A prevailing wisdom has it that for CRM to be social, you just need to add a tool that looks like Facebook or Twitter. To put it simply, this is a nonsense or, at least, not the complete story.

System vs Philosophy

One of my first blog posts talked about what is CRM ( In essence, I suggested there are two sides to the CRM coin: CRM as a philosophy and CRM as a system. I also suggested that CRM systems do not have to be implemented to anticipate customer need and manage the customer relationship. The idea of an ‘xRM’ system means any number of business processes can be managed through a CRM system.

The same applies to this idea of Social CRM. The philosophy of Social CRM is best explained by a text such as the Cluetrain Manifesto ( The idea is by engaging with clients in ‘real’ conversations, rather than crafting marketing messages, clients will respond more favourably and, ideally be loyal and buy more. Chris Brogan describes it pretty well ( and Dr. Graham Hill also summarises the concept of ‘value through engagement’ (

Because it is difficult to go to every client’s house for a ‘cup of tea and a chat’, to assist in engaging clients, systems can be introduced which open channels for two-way conversation. Traditionally CRM system have been focussed on pushing out a message, rather than engaging in a conversation. Social CRM systems seek to remedy this deficit. I explored this topic in my ‘Push and Pull’ post (

Do We Need Systems for Social CRM?

Just as we can engage in a CRM philosophy without a CRM IT system, we can engage in Social CRM without a Social CRM IT system. A great example of this is seen in the movie ‘Erin Brockovich’ ( Erin hates lawyers and is not one for process. However, she cares deeply about the people of Hinkley and their plight resulting from contaminated ground water. By engaging the town’s people in a direct, meaningful way she achieves what the lawyers fail to do, obtaining the signatures required to ensure the people get the money they deserve. While the lawyers’ formal, less intimate engagement had caused mistrust and confusion, Erin’s approach gained the trust of the people and made them feel that they were doing the right thing by engaging with her.

However, the movie also illustrates the importance of a systemised approach. When Erin is sick, much of the information, such as contact information, has to be re-obtained by the impersonal lawyers as the only place the information resides is in Erin’s head. With a CRM system in place, this information could be held centrally. The lawyers could get access to the information they need to do their job and Erin could keep them away from the clients.

Do We Need Chatter or Yammer to have a Social CRM System?

Again, not at all. Despite what the doomsayers suggest, e-mail is still an excellent tool for direct communication and is thriving ( These new ‘collaboration tools’ ultimately allow organisations to use different channels for different kinds of conversation. Interestingly, my own conversations with users of programs like Chatter suggest that, while these kinds of tools do assist in engaging in meaningful conversations with clients, it is not for the reasons you would think. The reason these systems help organisations be more social is because these tools funnel indirect communication away from e-mail. E-mail, along with the telephone, SMS and face-to-face meetings then become the primary channels for direct, meaningful engagement with clients, while the ‘collaboration tool’ is used for general, non-specific impersonal communications (memos), crowdsourcing requests and high-level catching up with distant connections (status updates). In other words, non-essential indirect communication is funnelled through the collaboration tool, letting e-mail be more effective as a one-on-one communication and engagement tool.

Paul Adams, a former researcher at Google, who now works at Facebook has published a slideshow of his research into social networks and how online social tools do not always do a good job of mapping how we interact in the real world ( At slide 122, he makes the following statement “Online social networks make it easier to reconnect and catch up with weak ties”. Status updates give us an easy way to see what people are up to. A few slides later he describes online social networks as a “powerful route when sourcing new information”.

What online social networks do NOT do is convert temporary ties (people we interact with only once) to weak ties or weak ties into strong ties. If they did, they would be a truly social tool in the Cluetrain sense. This ‘social conversion’ happens through other channels such as meetings, phone calls and, to a lesser extent, e-mails. This is reinforced on slide 142.


This idea that e-mail is reserved for strong, authentic connections is also corroborated on slide 144 where Paul says “Many people use e-mail for very private exchanges…Some young adults use e-mail to communicate with their strongest ties because their (online) social network is overloaded with information.”

The 224 slides are definitely worth browsing as he goes on to talk about how real social networks influence buying habits and how people behave differently on online social networks than in real life interactions.

I understand it may be controversial to suggest a tool like Chatter is not social, but I strongly believe Erin would not have had as much success ‘friending’ Hinkley on Facebook and posting to their wall as she did directly speak directly to the individuals. Chatter would have been great, however, if she was looking for someone in Masry’s law firm who knew something about Hexavalent Chromium or worked on groundwater contamination cases. Chatter aids collaboration but this is not the same as aiding a meaningful two-way conversation. The statistics on the Chatter site confirm this ( The improvements are in areas of collaboration and productivity, but not in areas of client engagement and loyalty.


The philosophy of social CRM is that customer-centric selling can be improved through active and direct engagement with customers. Systems can be put in place to support this. The specific system will depend on the channel in which we intend to engage with the customer. However, if a business implements social tools with no clear vision of their purpose they are wasting their time.

Collaboration tools provide an online channel to engage with others. However, collaboration tools are not synonymous with the concept of a meaningful conversation with a customer or colleague; they simply allow us to share information. The research supports the notion that other channels, such as face to face meetings and e-mails, are still the preferred choice to maintaining strong connections in our networks. To put it another way, if you want to collaborate with people use a tool like SharePoint, Yammer or Chatter; if you want to forge a relationship, pick up the phone or, failing this, send them an e-mail.


Dave Berry said...

Very enlightening read, Leon. Thanks for the data!

CSurieux said...

Before 'engaging' with customer, a first step would be 'being present in social networks' (i.e. having an social 'name' ), a second would be observing the impact of your 'name' in the network.

Leon Tribe said...

Hi CSurieux,

While it would do no harm, I personally do not see it as necessary. Was Erin present on Facebook/LinkedIn/Twitter? Was she measuring impact?

The tools I mention are great for establishing a 'name' in a field but they are not necessary to develop a rapport and deliver great service to cusotmers.