I hate to sound like Dr. Doom and Gloom but have you paid attention to the cost of gasoline lately? Of course you have. It’s sickening to watch as prices resume their inexorable climb. The last time we saw prices spike was the last time the economy was in decent shape — right before the wheels fell off in 2008.
The global economy is based on the assumption that transportation and raw materials are cheap and will remain so. Petroleum is our dominant fuel source and it doubles as a raw material for plastics, rubber, fertilizer cement and many other materials that make the world run.
The price rise is no surprise. As the global economy began to feel better we all began to use more petroleum and electricity. The authoritative IEA (International Energy Agency, based in Paris) pegs global demand at 90 million barrels per day (mbd) while supply has never gotten above 88 mbd. The small difference for all of you supply and demand types drives the higher cost of driving.
While you might see this as a catastrophe, I smell an opportunity. This is a disruptive moment and whenever a situation like this arrives, it usually means there’s an imbalance opening a niche for a new solution. Frequently, though not always that means a technological solution.
Historically CRM fit that description. On-demand computing, embedded analytics, social media and an array of sales, marketing and service applications followed CRM’s debut. The universe is still resonating from that big bang and we are now at the start or the middle of another. High transportation costs open the door to a variety of solutions that help organizations to reduce their traveling while maintaining their business agility.
Consider unified communications systems (UCS), which bring together voice, mobile, calendars, chat and video conferencing. UCS has two jobs in a high cost transportation environment. First, leveraging UCS can mean less travel for anyone who currently commutes to an office to work on a computer. Much of that work could be done remotely if we have good communication between the hub and spoke. That works for people in call centers — which have leveraged Internet technologies for a long time to do this — as well as sales and other business people as well as for creative types.
For customers, a video chat or conference might speed solutions and reduce the need for all parties to converge in a conference room saving everyone travel costs but also time, which is even more valuable.
At a macro level the days of the ten- or twenty-thousand attendee (or more) conference might be ending. Vendors and their customers spend huge sums annually to attend user groups and similar meetings. Visionary vendors are already taking advantage of Internet conferencing technologies to get the job done with much less travel and cost.
The savings might go back into the corporate pocket but some of those dollars could also be recirculated to support more frequent Web conferences. Think about it — we have cloud computing with multiple releases per year yet the user conference is so expensive to put on that we only see one per year. That could change with on-line conferences and that would speed up the cadence of change in many companies.
Personally, I would miss visiting some of the cities I visit each year and many attendees might miss the travel perks. But that might simply be the symptom of another opportunity to fulfill.
The important point to keep in mind is that no change of this type is total and complete change is not even what’s required. If we start a process that enables us to get energy supply and demand back in synch then we will see reductions in other costs. This can also mean that the economy whipsaws for a while with prices and economic activity moving in opposite directions. To avoid this we will need to pick new directions and stay with them.
There are other good reasons to consider these and other additions to the CRM suite. In a global economy customers are everywhere and many potential new customers are too far away to seriously contemplate face-to-face interactions. The traditional answer has been to open offices in other countries but that’s expensive. More importantly, many of the things we sell on line, are delivered at price points that will not support that kind of expansion. All of this makes the case for expanding an increasingly sophisticated communications footprint.
The high cost of transportation might be the proximate cause of this expansion, but as this short examination shows, the downstream benefits can be big. If the future works out as I think it will, it makes sense for all of us to consider again how we can best build out the front office suite.
I almost never attend a webinar unless I am speaking. When I need to know something I usually get a one on one with a CEO or other leader of a company. They’re very gracious with their time and the tutelage helps me as an analyst though often I don’t run out and write something about my experience.
Part of the reason for my reticence is that most briefings are on background — the leaders are often trying out a new idea and looking for feedback. Frequently those ideas undergo significant modification before they finally emerge. Other times, the briefing in embargoed pending an official announcement. And often a briefing is about an incremental release — suffice it to say there are lots of reasons not to write about something. At least right away. Sometimes, months later, an idea strikes and I write something. It’s not the best system in the world but I doubt I am the only scribe that uses it.
Last week I broke with precedent and attended a webinar on Microsoft’s unified communications server also known (I think) as Office Communication Server. It immediately reminded me of why I don’t do this more often but after I got over the pitch aspect and the interminable demo, I got the big picture and was happy I made the effort. Now, breaking with another looser precedent I am writing about it because I think it’s important.
Lots of companies, mainly in the telco space, are deploying unified communication servers; they include, but the list is hardly limited to, Cisco, Avaya, NEC and Microsoft, just to pick a few. This is a new field and standards are still loose and one vendor’s gear might not work with another’s. But Gartner has a Magic Quadrant for them so it’s a real market.
If UCS is new to you and you are not a dyslexic fan of USC football, it’s all about bringing together your calendaring, email, mobile, voice mail, VoIP, video and other telecommunications under one roof to better coordinate workflow, customer access and intra-company communications. I think it’s important, especially from a sustainability perspective.
I’ve been researching sustainability ideas all my life but my interest intensified in the last couple of years and now I am writing about it. I think UCS coupled with other new product ideas like content libraries, SharePoint and Salesforce’s Chatter, offers the potential to squeeze a lot of friction out of business.
By friction I mean all those things that suck up energy — both the personal and the carbon based kind — without delivering business benefit to either customers or vendors. Unified communication brings together the exploded cornucopia of communications technologies that have been invented over the last few decades into a manageable framework giving users the ability to tame what has become a communications beast.
Unified communication integrated with CRM offers the possibility of making us all more proactive and responsive to customers but in ways that simplify rather than complicate our lives. It seems like whenever we get a new technology one of the first uses we dream up for it is to somehow accelerate a business process, like selling. Ironically, that’s true occasionally but quickly everyone gets the same idea and what was once an accelerator turns the whole thing to gridlock.
A classic example might be email. As a tool for sales and marketing it proved very useful and many companies like Responsys, ExactTarget or ConstantContact (just to pick a few) have elevated it to a science. But then came various flavors of social networking with the same idea and in a short time we had way too many technologies trying to use the same basic technique resulting in jammed (and spammed) inboxes.
Unified communications reverses this trend partly. It does little to arbitrate between your media of choice but because it can track the whereabouts and activities of the recipient, it can result in one message rather than several from an impatient colleague, vendor or customer. It may not accelerate many processes but then again it might surprise you. What unified communications will certainly do is help us organize how we communicate and liberate time that is wasted because we simply don’t know.
More importantly, when you add video, VoIP and other advanced technologies, you may come to realize that what used to take a face to face meeting now only requires a quick chat. My research shows that as the recovery gains momentum, the cost of transportation will increase just as it did in 2008 when liquid fuel prices spiked. Having an alternative like unified communications might be the difference between doing business and not.
Unified communications wasn’t on my radar until the webinar and I am glad that I attended that one.