CRM Is No Longer a Four-Letter Word

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Some words just leave a bad taste, and the notion of washing your mouth out with soap simply isn’t going to do the trick. Just ask Brad Wilson, currently the general manager of Microsoft CRM for the Microsoft Business Solutions Business Group. Before he went to Redmond (and before he began landing several CRM magazine Influential Leader awards) he was at marketing solutions pioneer E.piphany. Well before the company shed its “dot” en route to an acquisition by Infor, Wilson recalls the vendor’s sales teams would contort themselves every which way to avoid actually using the acronym “CRM” in front of a prospect. Some companies had been so burned by failed CRM implementations that they had grown convinced that the technology was only capable of delivering more harm than help. Unfulfilled promise and hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of dollars frittered away on flawed initiatives had many CRM managers tossing nickels into curse jars whenever the letters were let loose in their lexicons. Gartner Research Director Chris Fletcher insists that, back in those days, the standard reaction was to question the basic value of CRM, and many dismissed the software as shelfware.

In a very real sense, CRM was still in its Dark Ages, Fletcher says, with most systems sold during that time geared toward high-level managers and chief information officers. And the products were pushed by big consultancies and strategy firms with vested interests in locking in lucrative, long-term contracts. With high failure rates capturing public attention, organizations counted themselves fortunate to achieve a full return on their investments at all, and often didn’t see benefits until after months, or even years, of effort. 

A couple of factors contributed to CRM’s unfortunate reputation, Fletcher says. “[Companies] hadn’t put into place what their business objectives were, other than some very high-level vision of ‘keeping in touch with the customer,’” Fletcher says of CRM adopters in the ’90s and early ’00s. “They didn’t realize that the implementations required a fair amount of professional services, organizational change, and business process reorientation to be successful.”

Ironically, for a technology built on the shoulders of sales force automation (SFA), CRM wasn’t seen in a good light by salespeople, a perception Fletcher says was particularly true with the offerings from the era’s frontrunners, Siebel Systems and SAP. “People were using probably 15 percent of the functionality in 80 percent of the implementations,” he says. “It boiled down to the sense of the solution—it was a glorified contact manager with maybe some forecasting, as well.” 

No one was singing the right set of praises, Fletcher says now. “If done right, SFA can be an effective forecasting tool and [can] certainly help consolidate information,” he says. “But you also have to give salespeople something they want to use, something that makes their job more efficient so that they don’t mind spending the extra time inputting data.”

Things started to change, however, with the emergence of software-as-a-service (SaaS) and on-demand offerings; mobile computing; and the application of data and business intelligence and analytics. The popularization of SaaS—led by Salesforce.com’s Marc Benioff and his “no software” mantra (see CRM’s November 2009 issue)—didn’t change the industry overnight. New functions and tools, including ones actually geared toward salespeople, gave users a reason to open up CRM and to enter information. Innovations for front-line workers helped boost adoption and bring value to expensive—but increasingly less expensive—solutions.

“There’s been a democratization of analytics in the last 10 years,” Microsoft’s Wilson points out. Refreshed user interfaces and dashboards enable salespeople to customize their own CRM portals for analytics in the form of data mashups. Breakthroughs in mobile computing have also altered the CRM landscape, Fletcher notes, with users accessing CRM on their mobile phones, changing the nature of sales and service in the field. 

“Now you can build systems that are much more end-to-end for your business,” Wilson says. Not only that, but companies can connect with like-minded individuals on the social Web. Ten years ago, before customer communities and user groups, Wilson notes that that activity might have happened in person only at customer summits and through old systems of media. “People want to know they aren’t alone,” Wilson says. “If you’re doing an 8,000-seat deployment, you want to connect people up at the same scale.” Today, that level of connectivity can be acheived simply by logging on to Twitter.

The recession also renewed interest in customer retention; CRM became, for many, a crutch during a time of uncertainty. (See CRM’s Recession Issue, February 2009; for more on customer loyalty, see Required Reading.) 

How far the industry has come might not be a point of contention. But does that alone make CRM a badge that industry members can wear with pride? With advances such as SaaS, mobile computing, analytics for the business user, and social CRM, is the industry fun again? 

Fletcher argues that it is, and that there’s no doubt the market has turned a corner since the days of clunky, installed solutions. Even the service side of CRM, he notes, is enjoying brighter days, with improved interfaces and real-time information brought to an integrated agent desktop. (For more on the industry’s 15-year progression, see our cover package, “CRM: Then and Now.”)

Fletcher says the future of CRM looks brighter still: “As the economy gets stronger, there will be more and more attention paid [to] engaging the consumer and the B2B customer.” That’s certainly nothing to curse at. 

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