The University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management recently held a three-day course called "Managing Customer Engagement Using Social Media and CRM."  It was the first class under the school's recently created Centre for CRM Excellence.  The course was taught by a mix of school faculty and CRM industry experts, and included sessions on measuring the value of customers, the ROI of social CRM, customer-centric process design, and driving user adoption with change management.

The Centre is a partnership the university entered into with Microsoft Canada, with the objective of creating a globally-recognized hub for CRM thought leadership, research and education aimed at the  CRM experts and practitioners community.  And the fact they launched the center with a course focused on Social CRM is something to take note of.  The idea that a major institution of higher education dedicated a three-day course to the subject of Social CRM would not have happened even a few short years ago.  But not only is there a class, the centre itself emphasizes the importance of integration of social media and CRM to businesses today. 

It was just a few short years ago the idea of Social CRM began being discussed.  Most of the conversation was around social media's impact on marketing, branding, and promotion.  But over these past few years Social CRM has gone from "just talk" to products, services and processes that are bringing the best of both worlds closer together.  And while there is no one product or service that can do it all, we're seeing a maturation process take place, that has companies looking to Social CRM to do more than get the word out.  It is being used to really improve the communication process with customers from beginning to end -- from initial conversation to ongoing collaboration in the vendor/customer relationship.

This focus on Social CRM as a strategy to improve the customer collaboration lifecycle was very evident in Toronto.  In fact, the most impressive part of the three days was the roster of executives who attended the class.  They were anxious to get beyond definition discussions, and why it's important to "listen" and "engage."   Their focus was on determining the best ways to bring together social and traditional communication channels and processes to serve customers, to create better experiences for them, and to collect/analyze "social footprints" being left by customers to better understand them.

It's this kind of thinking on behalf of executives charged with serving customers that make 2011 the year Social CRM begins to make its way into the mainstream business consciousness.  Vendors are creating more socially-enabled products and services, but it's people like those who attended the Toronto event that are leading the charge to bring Social CRM strategy and process to improving the customer experience.  And while there are still a great many companies whose corporate culture has not embraced the characteristics of a "social business," the transformation is taking place at a much faster pace than before.

The changing corporate culture

"The challenge is that most companies have been wired from the ground up to operate in a world of company-controlled communication, and they're simply not equipped to engage in conversations. But, the rules have changed," says Greg Gianforte , founder and CEO of customer experience solutions provider RightNow. "To be truly conversant with social customers, companies are rewiring their operations to be more customer-centered, more relationship oriented, and more transparent. They're collaborating across departmental silos, working beyond the capabilities of traditional CRM tools, and weaving social into business as usual. "

The good news is that true Social CRM offers companies a seamless and real-time view across the many different channels that customers converse in, new and old alike (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, chat, phone), Gianforte says.  "With this view, companies can truly get to know and proactively care for their customers, ultimately fulfilling their brand promises, the social way."

Marcel LeBrun, CEO of social monitoring application service provider Radian6, believes that today we are seeing a fundamental culture shift from the established paradigm of customers lining up for companies to companies now lining up for customers. "This customer expectation will explode in 2011 with people expecting a deeper level of knowledge and interaction from the companies they interact with, causing organizations to rethink their current business processes," he predicts. "The process for creating enterprise wide change and integrating social strategy will take time because making changes to large, well established processes is complex, but there isn't a company who will get through 2011 without making the necessary investments in listening and responding to its customers on the social Web."

Moving beyond the early adopters, LeBrun says we will see a majority of companies in 2011 start their investments in social listening and engagement, and we will also see many leading brands demonstrate what an enterprise wide social strategy looks like and showing us the power of getting the voice of the customer closer to every employee.

Service with a smile -- and a Tweet

In my opinion the area that will make the biggest impact in the mainstreaming of Social CRM is customer service.   Alex Bard, CEO of customer service solution provider Assistly, says 2011 will bring an impressive increase in the amount of customer service delivered over social networks. "Not only will more companies provide service over social channels, but socially-networked customer service will take its place alongside sales and marketing as a cornerstone of any comprehensive Social CRM strategy."

"In our view, delivering customer service over social networks is a fundamentally different task from marketing and sales activities" Bard says. "As businesses evolve their use of social networks, from simple listening and publishing to more meaningful engagement, they will want tools to optimize around service and support.  In our view, social customer care will no longer be an afterthought or an adjunct to Social CRM; it will sit squarely at the core of business strategy alongside other forms of customer interaction."

Social footprints turn into customer intelligence

With people sharing more and more of their lives on social networks today, it's already critical to not just listen, but to understand what's being said in order to act accordingly.  "The No. 1 use case we're seeing of late is the triaging, prioritization, automating, and routing of customer tweets, status updates, and other information across the enterprise," says John Bastone, global product marketing manager for customer intelligence for SAS. "As social becomes an integral channel, and as insights on who matters, and who doesn't become quantified, handling this efficiently becomes of paramount importance."

Bastone refers to this as a "Reese's Moment." "Do you recall those commercials, which showed some event where peanut butter and chocolate were combined for the first time?" he says. "'Two great tastes, that taste great together?' That's a good analogy for what's happening behind the scenes in organizations today.  Combine social media chatter with website visits and see how social strategies drive traffic.  Combine real-time social sentiment with real-time stock price to understand how social media is immediately shaping corporate outlook.  Correlation is on the menu for 2011." 

But it's important to take a strategic approach to mainstreaming social data.  "While it is evident that a business needs to integrate its internal and external data silos in order to fully realize the value of social CRM, it is also important to underscore the need for cross-functional teams and processes that work toward integrating people and processes across departments and functions," says Tom Clear, CEO of unified service desktop provider Jacada. "These organizational changes are currently driven by the need to be successful with social initiatives, rather than an organizational resolve to tear down walls. While this will continue to be the case, we should expect further progress in this direction and widespread adoption of best practices shared by the pioneers."

Still a ways to go

A lot of momentum has built up over the past year with respect to Social CRM, and 2010 was a watershed year in a number of ways.  And while 2011 looks to be shaping up as the year companies go beyond focusing on marketing and promotion, we're still at the beginning of understanding the power of integrating social with traditional CRM in all aspects of customer engagement. 

Volker Hildebrand, VP of solution management for SAP, expects most organizations to have some sort of social media activities going on next year -- either out of fear, competitive pressure -- or because they really see an opportunity to better reach out to and engage with their target audience. "But many organizations are still pondering, though, what they should do and the spectrum will range from 'Hey, let's create a Facebook page' to more sophisticated and strategic social media initiatives such as building and fostering a vibrant branded online community," he says.

Even if your company is still in the trial and error phase, or focused on reacting to social media, it's time to look at what the combination of social tools and CRM technology can do to create collaborative relationships with customers -- throughout the relationship lifecycle.  With vendors providing more tools to make it easier to do so, 2011 will be a significant year in the development of the collaborative relationship, and Social CRM as a corporate strategy.

Brent Leary is a small-business technology analyst, adviser, and award-winning blogger.His blog can be found at, or follow him on Twitter at