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Is the End User the End-All and the Be-All?

This year’s SugarCON  was abuzz with a renewed focus on user experience , highlighted by Clint Oram’s exciting product roadmap presentation. In all, recognizing the importance of users is a good thing, because usability drives adoption of any CRM. However, I’m concerned that in this renewed focus on the end user, something equally important is getting lost: namely, that to the buyer, usability means measurables.

Don’t get me wrong, usability is an incredibly important priority, and the hallmark of any next-generation CRM is how well it adapts to the changing priorities (desires) of the end user. We absolutely need to rethink UI, and consider how people now like to interact. Their preferences have been influenced heavily by services like Twitter and Facebook. With 800 million users (and growing), Facebook is the most adopted ‘Relationship Management’ interface on the planet, and its design is driving expectations.  The best vendors are already moving to the stream metaphor for as a base for new user interface designs, and that trend is likely to continue given social media’s impact on every stratum of society.

But we still need to capture measurables in this stream.

In his discussion about this new push, Chris Bucholtz talks about how CRMs “have been traditionally designed for the buyer first, i.e. sales management,” as if that were a bad thing. It’s not a bad thing, and I completely disagree with that premise. The buyers of a CRM won’t become buyers if there isn’t a clear value proposition. Buyers and users alike need to get something out of a CRM, or it will fail.

Now it’s easy to see how a push for more meaningful metrics can hamper usability, and how that in turn impedes adoption, making the system less effective. The pendulum may have swung too far in that direction, but it’s incorrect to think that swinging it all the way back the other way from buyer to user is going to drive success.

Let’s consider this in the context of the old adage, “can’t see the forest for the trees.” In this case, it’s the user who is working directly with the trees, let’s say as a lumberjack. It may be trees in a particular forest, or of a certain diameter, or just oak trees, or only coniferous ones . . . whichever market it is that the user focuses on, a market or segment. If I hand that user a tool to keep track of the trees he harvests, their species and age and the number of board feet, and that tool helps him cut down more of the right kinds of trees (so he gets paid more), you can be pretty sure he’s going to use it.

But the lumberjack’s manager needs that data for different reasons. Management needs to be able to analyze all of the trees to discover patterns. Gathering data from many different forests, about trees of all species and sizes, to identify and define new business objectives. They need to be able to step back and look at the forest, not the trees. They need to decide which acres are the best ones to harvest next, what types of reforesting is needed to sustain the business, and whether or not a particular parcel of land is worth harvesting at all.

In other words, buyers want to know who their ideal customers are, why they’re winning or losing, when to decide a market isn’t worth pursuing anymore. These are valuable data, and they come from a robust system which is capable of putting that data into their hands. CRMs aren’t purchased to make life easier for the sales team; they’re purchased to provide a return on investment. I understand where John Mertic was coming from when he said, “you might as well save everyone’s time and solve the problem for the true decision maker (i.e. the user ), lest you find yourself product replaced,” but if you focus entirely on the “true decision maker,” you risk ignoring the “true product buyer” who is accountable for delivering return on their CRM investment.

The implication is that it’s wrong to measure both sides, but users and buyers are part and parcel of the same equation. We have to build CRMs for managers and end users alike; that’s how we build value.

Now I don’t make this critique lightly; I’ve been providing input into the design of SugarCRM’s next generation UI, and frankly, it rocks. Levementum is the leading SugarCRM partner, and given what I know about what’s up and coming, I’m bullish about the future — Sugar is doing all the right things and I wait with rabid anticipation for the next 3 releases of the product.

So while I celebrate this refocusing on the user, let’s be very careful not to forget that this equation has two parts, and we ignore either one at our peril.

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