In the tech world, it’s hard to play catch up to industry leaders—and frequently counterproductive. That world moves so fast that the better bet is often to wait until a new pathway opens up, allowing a small, new company to head off giants at the pass.
In areas such as customer-relationship management (CRM), nothing less than dominance in a $20 billion enterprise is at stake in such educated guesswork.
Some experts predict that the proliferation of cloud-based and software-as-a-service based CRM tools will continue for more than a decade, in a manner that will serve current industry leaders.
But others are gambling on a shakeup, on twists and on new trajectories. One gamble involves whether the current, desktop-spawned approach can stay relevant in the coming years.
Forward-thinking tech companies were able to leverage the rise of the cloud to attain CRM eminence. Today newer and leaner companies see a new frontier to be conquered, in the form of consumers’ broad migration to mobile.
Abinash Tripathy, CEO of Helpshift, a four-year-old CRM-focused company, says that, though mobile is still in a relative infancy, it already poses challenges for some current leaders and opportunities for firms such as his own.
Connecting the Walled Gardens: Why Mobile Offers a New, Trickier Context for CRM
The rise of the mobile consumer has provided astonishing opportunities for businesses—especially since Apple’s app store debuted in 2007. A million apps are now already operation, mostly across the Apple and Google app platforms.
Tripathy likens the rapid and ongoing growth to the sudden swelling of the Internet, which rose from only a million websites in its first five years to a billion today. And in just a few years, the smartphone era has doubled the total number of Internet users globally from one billion to two, and he anticipates similar growth anticipated in the near future.
This creates a dilemma for CRM. “There is a walled garden approach to app stores,” Tripathy says. “The app store model creates a firewall between the customer and the product.
This means that, if you sell a customer an app and she encounters a difficulty with it, the difficulty in the customer reaching you raises the risk of her simply deleting your app and trying a competitor instead.
Helpshift saw the need for a chat feature that can connect the customer and the product-maker, in a way that’s consistent with app-store guidelines. “We brought something that companies can drop into their app,” Tripathy says.
Goin’ Mobile—and Not Going Back
All CRM players have to gamble on where it’s next headed. Mobile may be the new big thing, but might not something else come along shortly and displace it? Might we see new browsers that are optimized for mobile, making apps and app stores irrelevant?
Tripathy is betting that mobile will remain on the ascendance, and that it has a better chance of staying ascendant than approaches that were created in the desktop era.
“Browsers in phones won’t get to the native app experience anytime soon,” Tripathy tells me. “There are speed advantages and technology advantages in the apps.”
He also points to some other trends that guide his company’s decision-making:
- A huge 86% of mobile users’ time is currently spent on apps.
- Mobile users prefer texting to talking or emailing on their devices, making a chat interface appropriate when it’s time for the customer to reach out to the app maker.
- CRM is moving from a low-velocity, high-touch model (where a customer may have a long relationship with a company before making a purchase) to a high-velocity, low-touch model (where the customer has already bought an app or a subscription to a product, and now just needs a quick point in the right direction regarding some aspect of the product.
- Much of the CRM world still supports low-velocity, sales-driven strategies; but the rise of mobile-first businesses means that this model could face a threat.
“There is a perfect storm brewing,” Tripathy says, “for players other than Salesforce to build companies with a potential to IPO … Modern CRMs in the high-velocity and low-touch era will be data-driven, intelligent and optimized for the mobile customer.”
And in a counterintuitive move, Helpshift chose to punch above its weight, gambling that it could grow faster by bringing aboard larger clients than by accumulating smaller ones. Today, Helpshift’s growing roster of companies that it serves includes Flipboard, Flipkart, WordPress, Supercell, Express Coin and ModCloth.
Rob Asghar is the author of Leadership Is Hell: How to Manage Well and Escape with Your Soul (2014, Figueroa Press).