Over the past 12-18 months, major customer relationship management (CRM) players like Salesforce.com, Sage, SAP and others have been adding "social" abilities to traditional CRM applications -- like viewing social profile information from Twitter and Facebook.  Additionally, newer services such as BatchBook, BantamLive, and others are creating CRM applications on a social foundation aimed at the small and mid-sized business market.  And with every passing day, social technologies are merging with traditional CRM functionality, giving companies more efficient ways of transforming clicks into valuable customer relationships. 

A little over two years ago I wrote about the Three A's of Social CRM.  Back then most people were focused on social media, but not so much on its impact on customer relationship management tools and strategies.  Even a year ago when I compared traditional CRM with Social CRM the interest was pretty much limited to industry insiders.  That's not the case today, as the topic of Social CRM has become the focus of many in business. 

Having focused on CRM for almost two decades -- as an application developer, early Salesforce.com certified implementation partner, and finally as an industry watcher -- this may be the most important development I've seen.  I say this because technology has amplified the voice of the customer, and given them greater control over who they engage with, when they do, and how they do so.  This in turn is forcing those charged with engaging them to change their approach:  in order to connect with customers who Tweet to thousands of followers, watch videos on mobile phones, and form their own online communities.  This also is forcing CRM vendors to provide services that do more than just store customer information and track activities. 

But there's one company that looks to be creating a platform small businesses can use to turn a variety of online interactions into stronger customer relationships -- and it's not even a CRM company, in the traditional sense.

Keeping with the AAA theme from a couple of years back, below are a few reasons why Google is becoming the onramp to Social CRM success for small and mid-sized businesses.

Apps -- Internal

Even with Facebook hitting the 500 million member mark -- with billions of interactions taking place weekly -- the majority of people in business-to-business (B2B) organizations  I've come across say no more than 15-20 percent of their total interactions on Facebook are business related.  Conversely, about 80-90 percent of e-mail interactions these same folks have are business related, and with much higher frequency.  And in many cases, the e-mail exchanges are more intimate in nature, from a business perspective.  This may be because the conversations are more direct and focused, and the people engaged in the conversations are more focused on each other -- not the overall community -- during these interaction.  So even today, a large percentage of customer relationship building takes place in our inboxes.

Just as Microsoft Outlook was (and still is) key to increasing CRM user adoption over the past decade, Gmail is looking to be that key in the Social Age. More small companies are using Google's low-cost e-mail hosting services -- making Gmail the fastest growing of the big online e-mail providers, closing in on 180 million accounts. 

But the choice to use Gmail goes well beyond price.  Google has turned the inbox into a relationship-building platform enabling multiple points of contact, and increased opportunities for meaningful interactions. When you exchange e-mails with other Gmail users, Google can (based on your security settings) connect you with them if you both use Google Reader -- giving you the ability to see what kind of information they are interested in, and start feeding them more of it.  And when you go to YouTube, Google lists the YouTube channels of those you interact with via Gmail at the top of the page -- giving you a chance to subscribe to them. 

So Google is building an interaction-based platform on the bedrock of Gmail.  And as you exchange emails, you can grow the relationship wider by engaging across apps like Reader and Youtube.  You can also deepen the engagement with real-time collaborative interactions via Google Docs, Sheets and Sites.

Apps -- External

Not only has Google created a business interaction-based platform with their dizzying array of applications, but they've invited third-party application developers to extend that foundation through the Google Apps Marketplace.  And according to a recent post on the Official Google Apps blog, the top search term for installable apps in the marketplace is CRM.

Of the thirteen CRM apps in the marketplace, five of them are under the Social CRM umbrella, including Gist, BatchBook, and BantamLive.  Vendors like Zoho and Tactile add more traditional CRM functionality to Google's interaction platform.  These and a growing group of application developers will continue building the CRM functionality Google doesn't build itself.

Android

While everyone has been captivated by the developments surrounding the iPhone4 release, worldwide sales of phones with Google's Android operating system crossed over the five million unit mark, according to Gartner.  Google recently announced that 160,000 Android units get activated every day, and it expects Android to eventually be a $10 billion business.

No doubt the same apps being used on Web browsers are also driving up Android activations, as people are able to work from wherever they need to.  But Android tablet devices haven't even hit the market yet.  And with multiple vendors like Cisco, LG, and others committing to running Android on their upcoming tablets, Google will effectively be extending their business interaction platform to new areas. 
Cisco's tablet -- The Cius -- is a key piece in the company's push to enable the social enterprise.  The device will be optimized for collaboration via video chat, Webex meetings, and conference calls.  So the device will be optimized for video interactions, while other vendors may optimize their devices for different kinds of interactions.  But the bottom line is Android will be extended to cover more ground, while still offering Apps people can run across vendor-specific tablet devices.

Analytics

Google Analytics has become of staple of many businesses to track their Web traffic.  And Google's ability to turn text into context to serve up ads when we do searches and read emails has driven targeted traffic via Google Adwords.  And with this ability to analyze text for ads, Google should also be able to analyze text for sentiment.  Just imagine if Google (or a third party developer) could analyze the interactions we've had with someone across all the Google channels we engage them over so we can know what's on their mind, and also what is their state of mind -- and how they feel about us.  Or even being able to take a group of people we communicate with on Google channels, say VP's of marketing in the retail industry, to find out what those interactions can reveal.  This could lead to more targeted, efficient and meaningful interactions with those we're trying to create relationships with -- based on a business interaction lifecycle taking place across Google's services.

Social CRM is about meaningful interaction as well as information management.  And while business interactions are taking place all over, Google -- with search, e-mail, Web traffic, and collaborations via Docs, Sheets, etc. -- has created an inexpensive platform for building relationships with customers in the Social Age.  Through Apps (including third party apps), Android, and Analytics, Google is as much a Social CRM player as anyone else.  And for small businesses it may be the most important player.

Brent Leary is a small-business technology analyst, adviser, and award-winning blogger. He is the co-author of Barack 2.0: Social Media Lessons for Small Business. His blog can be found at http://brentleary.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/brentleary .