There’s no such thing as a CRM product

call-centre-illus-120.jpgIf you’re running a successful business, you’re doing a good job of customer relationship management. It’s not about the software.

Before you start calling me Nicolas Carr, I do not mean that CRM doesn’t matter. I just mean that I have spent most of the past decade watching the technology industry try to automate something that can only be automated to a certain extent. As SAP launches its latest CRM product and Oracle tightens its lineup with that of its subsidiary Siebel, it seems like a good time to take progress check. The short story: CRM’s evolution has been stunted by the missing link that we call the human mind.

CRM requires not only communication but intuition, a good memory and salesmanship. What the technology industry refers to CRM is really a set of tools that, for the most part, track what people called about (or what the company called people about) to the company call centre, and plugs in the latest promotions, discounts or other offers. Some do the same thing with e-mail or connect (in theory) to back-office ERP systems, but you can do a lot of the same things CRM products do if your enterprise has a team of good communicators who act with initiative using their phone, paper and an Outlook client.

One of the unique features of the CRM market is a backlash against research companies, who cited failure rates of 80 per cent so often that consultants and vendors started nit-picking about the methodology behind that number. The failures weren’t CRM problems, they whined, it was the way salespeople used it. The e-mail stuff worked better than the call centre stuff, they pointed out. I can only say anecdotally that of all the case studies we get pitched by vendors CRM projects (with a few exceptions) don’t exactly top the list.

If CRM did what it’s supposed to do, it would look a lot more like a feature set of business intelligence software. It would tell you not only what your past history with a customer was (something you would have stored in a data warehouse) but how your business with that customer will or will not grow over the next year. This could be why the kinds of people that built their livelihoods around CRM a few years ago are now focusing on master data management, which handles not only the information about customers but about products and other metadata.

Another sign of CRM’s tenuousness is the back-and-forth we’ve seen in terms of industry consolidation. Yes, Oracle bought Siebel, but there are a surprising number of firms that have managed to stay independent, including Vancouver’s Maximizer. Others have tried, and failed, to grow their own. About 10 years ago, for example, IBM formed a CRM spin-off called CorePoint. It folded that unit a year later and partnered with Siebel instead. does more than CRM, but its ability to stave off acquisition is impressive. Perhaps because so few companies have proven themselves good at CRM it still represents a Holy Grail in the minds of software developers.

Maybe the power of social networking technologies will improve these products and spark a CRM renaissance, but IT managers can be forgiven if they are pessimistic. The tidbits we manage to route through a CRM system are what a good salesperson would have gleaned if they did their homework before meeting an important client. CRM is not a product. It is a discipline which could be part of the core competency of every enterprise.

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