Evolving CRM

The CRM Evolution conference held last week in New York was interesting for multiple reasons. Most importantly, perhaps, is the perception that the market is moving into a higher gear, slipping past the restraints of a recession that would not quit. Good things are in store for the industry, I think, as buyers step up their games and vendors unleash a passel of new solutions.

There was also no small amount of contention as vendors and analysts jockeyed for position to be remembered as the one who rightly predicted the future first, or perhaps loudest.

The Post-CRM Era

“CRM is dead,” announced Bob Stutz of Microsoft. He should know, because he’s had a strong hand in building CRM — first at Siebel, then at SAP, and now for Microsoft. However, even if you take Stutz at his word, you still need to account for the rubble and debris of a 20-odd billion dollar breakup.

The fact is that CRM, or whatever we want to call it these days, is far from dead, but it has certainly morphed from the stovepipe applications of 15 years ago to the social, mobile, collaborative, cloud-based, workflow-infused thing it has become. If that’s what Stutz was thinking, then I concur.

I ventured that we were already in a “post-CRM era” at a breakfast roundtable and, because of that, I think Bob and I are on the same page. The species that we knew long ago have evolved into forms that would be barely recognizable to a time traveler from the turn of the century.

All this is well and good, and there’s no better place to discuss CRM’s evolution than at an eponymously named show. So perhaps the better question to ask, and the one I tried to answer in a breakout session, is what has it become? Also, where it is going is never a bad thing to contemplate.

CRM Future Shock

So, what has it become? It largely depends on which Church of CRM you belong to. If you or your vendor have moved aggressively into platform technology, then you see great value in applying all of those formerly disparate apps — like social, collaboration and workflow — into CRM apps to produce wonderful systems that can anticipate and even recommend courses of action for vendor personnel and customers.

If you also adhere to a mobile-first strategy, then you know the importance of not only building for small screens, but of maximizing the ability to specify rather than code.

However, all of this lacks a unifying principle, because it assumes our applications have become smarter in numerous ways and that we can blithely continue with business as usual. That’s a comforting thought, but is it realistic? I think not — and I wish to convince you that this is no bad thing.

Our time traveler would have a hard time recognizing today’s CRM — and equal difficulty recognizing today’s front-office work. When the millennium turned, email across the Internet was not very old, social networking was an idea embedded in a paper that came out of the Harvard psychology department in the 1950s, Windows ruled the desktop, and — my favorite — sales people made appointments to take orders.

Static, discrete front-office applications were all you needed in that business world. Actually, one argument then raging was whether you needed even that much. After all, spreadsheets ran SFA just fine. Look where we are today, though. Customers shop online, selecting — or more often eliminating — vendors without their even being aware that they were under consideration.

We are in a post-CRM era, by my estimate, precisely because the old technology can’t keep up with business any more. Moreover, the new apps are being used only in a so-so way, as many users pick and choose which functionality to implement (why do I need workflow and why can’t I skip a step in the sales process?) or use it in only the most rudimentary ways (my analytics package tells me what we sold last month).

Process Leap

The missing element in all this, I say — and I know I will get mail on this — is leadership, specifically leadership from the vendor community. If you watch closely, virtually all vendors are happy to bring out a bit of functionality such as social, collaboration, workflow and all the rest, but they are careful to discuss these bits in isolation.

I have not heard a convincing argument from any of the vendors for why it all needs to be incorporated in our entire suite of customer-facing applications.

That conversation doesn’t happen because no one wants to utter the words “best practice” any more for fear of losing a deal with a customer who likes the software but doesn’t want to be told how best to use it. If you doubt this, refer to CSO Insights’ famous research showing that half of sales organizations have no process or technology supporting the sales effort. That’s too bad, because the post-CRM world is a process-centric one.

If CRM is “dead” or we are in a “post-CRM” era, then it is because of the obvious fact that we do business very differently today than during CRM’s golden era. CRM was fundamentally a transaction-tracking system or system of record.

The era we are in involves a great deal of business process complexity and requires systems of engagement. The glut of new technology that every vendor offers is bringing this reality home, and businesses that make the leap from transaction-orientation to process are reaping new rewards. It’s time for everyone to reap those rewards — and time for vendors to get on with thought leadership in that direction.

Denis Pombriant

Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant's research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and website. He is the author of Hello, Ladies! Dispatches from the Social CRM Frontier and can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on Google+.

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