The Future of CRM
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In just a few years Customer Relationship Management has emerged as a powerful business trend. However, the best is yet to come. Recently the Internet portal CRMGuru.com hosted an online panel discussion featuring four distinguished CRM experts debating the future of CRM. Speaking of trends and challenges ahead, they agreed that CRM is here to stay but will evolve.

Erin Kinikin, vice president of CRM for Giga Information Group set the tone echoed by other participants by saying CRM is one of the most dramatic, fundamental changes in the history of business. High-Yield Marketings Dick Lee agreed: CRM is fundamentally the expression of the customer-centric business philosophy. Its how you respond to the fact that customers are now the drivers in our economy. 

Insight Technology Group just finished its annual state of the CRM marketplace review, and managing partner Jim Dickie sees major changes. A major West Coast financial institution is realizing that youve got to sell the way customers want to buy. Lee traces the rise of customer powerconcurrent with what we now call CRMfrom the early 80s, when the supply and demand curves in our economy really started switching over from being a predominately seller-driven economy to a predominately buyer-driven economy. It started that long ago? Well, Lee admits, it took us a lot of time to respond to it because basically business didnt want to do business the customer way, and customers have finally forced the issue.

Liz Shahnam of META Group was blunt about the importance of customer touch points: CRM projects that dont integrate customer touch points are destined for abject failure. Dickies West Coast financial firm recently did a direct mail campaign that invites people to respond any way they like, be it via the company Web site, call center, branch office or whatever, but wherever they come in, that information is shared with the rest of the sites. You dont want customers knowing things their account managers dont know.

Vertical solutions are another hot trend. Were approaching the end of the one size fits all CRM market, and entering an age of verticalization and specialization, Kinikin says. There are different types of customers, different types of business models and selling strategies, and over time there will be different CRM software to support these different models. Dickie agrees: What you had in the past was companies developing a tool set, and saying go and customize it for your industry. But now you have vendors coming into the market saying they will give you a 110 percent solution for a specific vertical. Shahnam went so far as to predict that in a few years, there will be no horizontal or generic CRM.

Most panelists saw increased functionality in CRM suites coming soon, even as functions associated with CRM are cropping up elsewhere. Dickie sees it as an efficient versus effective issue: A lot of the stuff weve done has been focused on efficiency, like giving the sales rep more time to make average sales calls. Were realizing the issue is really effectiveness. I need my average rep to make great calls. I need my average service person to make great service calls. 

CRM customers are also demanding more and more knowledge management functionality. Essentially, in the eBusiness economy, you need to deliver customer organizational knowledge on demand, anytime anywhere, Kinikin said. Were seeing a push to a lot more functionality being put into the CRM tools themselves, agrees Dickie. Lead tracking systems are great, but what I really want now is knowledge management systems, sales coaching systems, and service intelligence systems to help take the next step.

In short, the future of CRM is bright indeed. CRM will become deeply ingrained as a business strategy for most companies. Technology will evolve while technical and organizational challenges are overcome. Much will change in the years ahead, but one thing is certain: CRM is a journey, not a destination, and customers have their hands on the road map and the steering wheel. The rest is up to you. Are you ready?