Low-Code/No-Code Offerings to Grow, but Some Still Want Complexity
Since the early days of CRM, the industry has faced a daunting challenge: The tools have been too expensive and difficult to customize. And as systems have become more capable and sophisticated, so too have the tasks of building, maintaining, and updating them. Following years of steady improvements, CRM application development times and costs have been steadily moving upward for more than a decade.
Enter low-code/no-code development tools, which take much of the difficult coding work out of the process, reducing or completely eliminating the need for dealing with syntax, bugs, and legacy code.
Low-code/no-code CRM and other solutions represent the next generation of these technologies, according to Francis Carden, Pegasystems’ vice president of digital automation and robotics. It’s a view that’s shared by many in the CRM industry.
“Low-code/no-code is not just a thing, it’s a category of things,” says Rich Green, chief technology officer at SugarCRM. “It’s a category of capabilities that enable business subject experts rather than coders, in most cases, to adapt their platform. We have a term at Sugar: Let the platform do the work.”
These systems have been around since the early 2000s, but they have been advancing tremendously recently, Carden says. “A year or two ago, when people were applying the term ‘low-code’ from a CRM perspective, it might mean using an RPA bot.”
“We’ve evolved from systems designed for individual, tech-savvy users and ones that can automate basic processes to systems that are part of an enterprise strategy with more flexibility and agility,” says Rebecca Wettemann, principal at Valoir.
An increasing number of providers are offering systems with improved, embedded workflows that automate an increasing number of processes and more connections to other internal systems.
Though removing the need for users to choose hardware, software, computer language, and database was a significant advancement, it still pales in comparison with what is available from several vendors today. Some systems are simple enough for anyone with basic knowledge about a particular business to use and make changes to their CRM systems.
“Historically, when you have purchased a business CRM system, it was very rigid and you had to adopt your business processes to that platform,” Green says. “Low-code allows you to very quickly change your business process. Without having a computer science degree, you can adapt your business software to how you want to run your business.”
As companies amend, configure, and extend that capability, the low-code/no-code system can evolve with the organization, Green adds.
“Now we have elasticity, unlimited computing power, unlimited storage,” Carden says. “If we keep building software the way we did, everything we build ends up in the legacy bucket five minutes after we go live. But with low-code/no-code, if you don’t like it, you can enhance it almost instantly. You don’t even build for [the user interface] anymore. It works for every UI. I know that sounds like it’s just too good to be true.”
But with low-code/no-code, this is indeed all available right now, Carden adds. “It’s such a paradigm shift. We have to teach people what that shift is first and get people to agree that this is happening.”
The increasing mobility and variety of channels used by marketing, sales, and related departments has driven the trend to low-code/no-code, according to Carden. “If you’re writing code, typically what happened over the decades and even still today is you write an application, then have a business rule that requires some code (e.g., age of retirement).”
To add or change that business rule, there is likely code that needs to be changed in the data layer, the application layer, and elsewhere throughout the organization. That means involving engineering because making that many changes is a complex task.
“We’ve moved on from this,” Carden boasts. “It’s a business rule; it only got called code because businesses couldn’t build it. But now businesses can build it.”
With low-code/no-code systems, anyone who understands the business should be able to use the system, no engineering or coding knowledge required, according to Carden. For example, rather than writing a lot of code to determine which customers have a propensity to churn, workers can go into the system, input their business rules (e.g., lack of first-call resolution) using the company’s own terminology, and quickly have access to that information in real time through, say, a pop-up on contact center agents’ screens. The revised system can now serve up recommendations for actions that have resulted in retention for customers with similar profiles.
Still, though low-code/no-code systems are designed for those without technical expertise, providers of those platforms still need to keep end users in mind, Green warns. “Who are the tools for? What are they trying to do? What are their skill sets? A marketing automation expert is not the same as a [salesforce automation] business operations expert, who is not the same as a customer service operations person. The solution required for one piece of the business is not the same as the solution required for the others.”
By making such systems available, providers are enabling their customers to focus on their businesses rather than on the intricacies of coding, adds Jen Snell, Verint’s vice president of conversational AI. “We’ve extracted the ability for customers to build, manage, configure, and grow the experiences [for their customers].”
Rather than adding, deleting, or changing coding at the command line, customers of Verint’s low-code solution can use simple drag-and-drop commands to make changes, Snell says. “It makes it easy for the user; you don’t have to know those command lines. They’re still in them. You can still access them if you know how to. But [low-code] removes the need to.”
Carden likens the change in low-code CRM systems to the change in contact centers, which operate very differently today than they did just a couple of years ago.
However, Wettemann cautions that some systems being marketed as low-code require much more coding than others. “There are some providers that are very focused on the IT audience. It’s ‘low-code,’ but it’s very focused on providing the building blocks for the developer. There are other systems that are very focused on the business user, where someone who can’t write a line of code can do some very sophisticated stuff.”
The latter systems require embedded UI interfaces and automated data mapping to enable more complex processes without the need for the user to understand the data structure or the intricacies of how the technology works, Wettemann said.
LARGE DEMAND FOR LOW-CODE SOLUTIONS
Gartner expects low-code development technologies, including CRM, to reach $29 billion in revenue by 2025 (with a compound annual growth rate of more than 20 percent).
Democratization is one of the major drivers of the growth, according to Gartner. The firm found recently that at many companies, 41 percent of employees are business technologists—that is, employees who report outside of IT departments and create technology or analytics capabilities for internal or external business use.
Another issue, Green says, is that coders just aren’t available for non-tech businesses, an issue that is challenging many companies trying to leverage more complex technologies. “They’re all being hired by the Googles and Sugars of the world.”
“There is a new kind of persona, a business technologist who sits outside of the world of IT,” says Manoj Chaudhary, Jitterbit’s chief technology officer and senior vice president of engineering. “People want to empower themselves, but these people need [technical] help. We have put the power of the technology into the hands of the business so that they can solve their problems themselves.”
“Companies are increasingly looking at CRM as a platform,” Wettemann adds. “They’re looking at not just the functionality that is in the application, but also the ability to provide user-focused views and providing individual users the ability to quickly spin up the views that they need without the need for developers and resources. It’s all about agility.”
The movement to current low-code solutions is just beginning, according to Snell. “While we continue to drive greater accessibility, that’s going to lead to greater and greater innovation. It’s going to jump-start more sophisticated experiences delivered through continual innovation of those low-code solutions.”
CODED SOLUTIONS STILL NEEDED
Despite the current and projected growth for low-code/no-code solutions, there will still be companies that want a more complex CRM systems that will continue to require coding, experts agree.
Several providers offer both types of solutions, though they might not be separate products.
SugarCRM has developed its solutions based on the demographics and skill sets and needs of each of its customer segments, according to Green. Some have absolutely no technical skills, while others have more advanced skill sets and are looking for systems that enable them to leverage that.
Green compares SugarCRM’s solution to some Microsoft software, which enables most users to perform an increasing array of tasks but also enables more advanced users to write macros and perform more complex tasks.
“Low-code fulfills the need for the majority of our customers,” Green says. “But there are also customers who prefer a more advanced solution.”
“Some brands are looking to do more with their AI,” Snell adds. “Low-code solutions can do only so much today.”
Though the trend is definitely toward low-code/no-code solutions, companies that want to operationalize AI or drive sustainability and scalability will want a stepped-up solution. A company might be able to use a low-code solution, but that could also mean managing a dozen or more bots, which could be too cumbersome, according to Snell. “That’s really not scalable or sustainable.”
So companies that want to drive deeper value or greater experiences across their solutions will need the more complex, coded CRM solution, she explains. Many of those businesses are in highly regulated industries, such as healthcare or financial services.
Wettemann also notes that companies concerned about compliance might want to stay with solutions requiring more coding because they don’t want users developing features that could violate some rules or regulatory requirements.
Adopting a low-code/no-code CRM system is only the first step, Carden maintains. “The companies that are doing it badly are envious of the ones that are doing it well. The goal of most companies today is to be envied, not to envy someone else.”
“So much of the focus today is on getting [a low-code] solution live,” Snell adds.
But simply going live isn’t a measure of success. Instead, companies should measure success with such a system on whether it is actually driving desired business key performance indicators. “Companies need to move on from just getting it to go live to taking advantage of all of the data that is coming through,” she says.
“There is a sense that low-code/no-code tools can radically improve your business,” Green agrees. But just as AI works well only if companies have the right data to drive it, low-code/no-code solutions require users to truly understand the business to derive the most value from such a system.
Snell expects companies to evaluate their success with low-code/no-code solutions and look to expand their use across the enterprise. She also expects companies to look for ways to more easily incorporate AI into low-code/no-code solutions.
“Brands really want to own their own customer experience, and they have a vision of where they want to take it in the next three to four years,” Snell says. “There’s more demand than ever for low-code solutions.”
“The market has evolved quite a bit and is continuing to grow,” Chaudhary adds.
“We are continuing to push the envelope,” Green says, pointing to SugarCRM’s drag-and-drop tools for reporting and analytics and its acquisition in February of AddOptify, which offers a low-code workflow automation tool.
“The demand for low-code systems will continue to accelerate, with these systems offering increased capabilities going forward,” Wettemann predicts. “It’s been flying somewhat under the radar for management. CIOs are starting to see having these tools in place as a very attractive option. That being said, with digital transformation, companies are looking at solving more complex problems and more complex digital workflows.”
“Everyone realizes where this is going, and there is no going back,” Carden says emphatically.
Phillip Britt is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.