CRM is still failing - and here's how to fix it

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By: Wise Marketer Staff |

Posted on February 23, 2012

CRM is still failing - and here's how to fix it

Customer service is something that can make or break a firm. What is surprising, then, is that quite often the sales and support staff still can't respond effectively to customer demands even with a customer relationship management (CRM) system in place, according to Morgan Zimmerman, vice president of worldwide sales for Exalead.

Many companies rely on in-house CRM software to organise customer accounts and make cross-selling opportunities and marketing intelligence accessible to staff. But this traditional approach by itself is failing, Zimmerman warned.

According to executives surveyed by Forrester, more than one third believe that their existing CRM capabilities are either 'poor' or 'below average' in terms of marketing capabilities, customer data analytics, and customer service, with around one fifth claiming that CRM is not 'up to the job' for either direct sales or field service. The challenge, then, is to make the full spectrum of customer and business information available to customer-facing employees - something which all too often isn't possible.

The twin disciplines of sales and marketing both depend on timing, so the challenge for sales and marketing professionals is to generate sales from timely leads - both spontaneous and those which can be anticipated. Customers also want to be assured that an organisation is looking after them and knows what is going on. Consequently, one of the key issues lies in making sure that the right people have access to appropriate levels of usable information whenever it is needed, and as soon as it becomes available: you can't wait for overnight batch processing to propagate the details of customers' complaints and problems.

A frequent cause of major CRM project failures, whether in-house or 'in the cloud', is a mismatch between the architecture and capabilities of the software and the actual requirements of the sales, marketing and field agents (who typically want more flexible capabilities than are actually offered by proprietary systems or cloud-based applications).

For many large companies, customer data can be found in twenty or so different enterprise systems, with some organisations having more than fifty such databases. And if that wasn't daunting enough, the majority of customer data actually lives outside these systems in vast stores of 'unstructured' content such as web pages, email software, document files and spreadsheets, telephone recordings, and blogs. At the same time, the Information System (IS) 'spaghetti' has become further entangled due to an increase in the number of customer interaction channels, such as contact centres, customer self-service devices, sales offices, websites, social media, service branches and physical stores.

Against this backdrop, it is clear that sales and support staff can't respond efficiently or effectively to customer demands, even with a CRM system, unless that CRM system truly integrates all of the possible customer contact points in real time. Even today, customer service agents commonly need to open a dozen or more applications to answer a simple customer enquiry, and sales teams lose credibility because they can't get an accurate or complete view of their customer fast enough when they're talking to them on the phone. Managers also make less than optimal decisions because they're working with incomplete information, and customers - frustrated with cumbersome, fragmented sales and service systems - throw up their hands in frustration and telephone customer support, who still can't resolve their problem in a reasonable period of time.

Customers and employees increasingly need more and more flexibility and speed in CRM platforms: employees want software that's as fast and easy to use as, and customers expect service that's as speedy and personal as shopping on the web.

Recognising that their solutions are operating with incomplete data in diverse and fragmented IS environments, CRM vendors have recently been trying to overcome performance barriers by expanding the channels they support (e.g. mobile CRM, social CRM, and so on) and the systems they can connect with (such as SCM, accounting, ERP and BI).

In some cases the CRM platforms are even incorporating the functionalities of other external systems (such as billing and sales management). But this works both ways: at the same time, the makers of those external systems have also been racing to incorporate CRM into their own systems, while companies with in-house solutions have been trying to bridge their own data silos and make more scalable database systems. With each evolution, everyone continues to strive for the simplicity of use that staff and customers expect. So far, however, these efforts have met with limited success because there is a fundamental disconnect between the underlying IT model for CRM and the business needs that CRM should be addressing: that is, traditional CRM systems can't function without a clean, centralised and well-controlled database of customer information, and trying to build and maintain such a monolithic resource today is a thankless task.

And even if it was really possible to construct a massive database housing a perpetually clean, centralised copy of all essential customer data, users still wouldn't be satisfied interacting with an application built upon it. Relational databases were designed to record transactions ("write" operations) entered by a limited number of users against a limited volume of data. And traditional database programming (SQL, or Structured Query Language programming), demands that all possible queries, views and reports be anticipated and hard-coded (programmed) in advance, leaving users to struggle with long, complex forms and rigid operational boundaries when accessing information. In other words, the technology simply hasn't existed to manage vast volumes of unstructured and structured customer data scattered across multiple silos, much less to deliver simple, real-time, unified access to it for a wide base of users for a broad range of purposes.

Software solutions that have the capability to remove the barriers that stop employees from getting a comprehensive '360-degree' view of their customers not only provide customers with better service and personalisation, but they also have the capability to increase profitability through real-time upselling and cross-selling suggestions. Software such as this, which by definition also has to include search-based applications (SBAs) that work in a similar way to web search engines, allow companies to collect all of their customer data from wherever it resides and produce it at a moment's notice, meaning that there is effectively no limit to the types and volumes of data that are collected, analysed, searched for, and displayed when needed. The web style technology of SBAs means that they are much better than older technologies at providing information in real-time. Semantic web and mashup technologies, when applied to customer information, can also help cut through masses of irrelevant peripheral information.

Put it all together, give it to both back-room and front-line staff, and the company should have much more effective inbound communications, outbound communications, sales pipeline management, and marketing campaign planning. Staff can find the latest information about each customer with ease without the need to call the IT department for help.

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