Conspectus Magazine asked me for an opinion piece that was published this week under the title of ‘Could do (a lot) better’. I suspect they might have preferred a more gentle piece on CRM and social media for example. Instead they got something of a rant:

Could do (a lot) better

During the fourteen years I’ve worked in the CRM industry while a lot of things have moved forward, some of what I would consider to be the fundamentals of success seem barely to have budged at all.

If we look at CRM technology there’s no doubt enormous strides have been made. The breadth of functionality has increased, systems readily support remote access, and there have been massive strides forwards in their flexibility and ease of configuration. There are a wealth of architecture and deployment options, and, with the advent of open source options, never has the power of CRM technology been available to so many people.

From an implementation perspective, we’re largely past the era of high profile failures, partly as a result of better implementation practices, and partly because the technology is easier to deploy.

But, while this is all good news, if you examine the rather more core issue of whether CRM technology is adding real operational value, the picture looks considerably less promising. In the main, the bulk of organizations seem to be using CRM technology in its most basic way, and are consistently failing to achieve its potential.

A lot of the responsibility for this, in my opinion, can be laid at the door of the software vendors. The knowledge is out there about the importance of strategic vision, sound supporting processes, and effective user adoption as being critical to success, but the vendors are not choosing to apply it, and worse, their approach is far from conducive to success in a number of other respects:

A sales obsessed culture – as a poacher turned gamekeeper I’ve seen the pressure salespeople are under to deliver results. The commissions they receive for making a sale can be extremely high and the penalties for failure painful. If you’re a salesperson struggling to make your quarterly numbers then what’s good for the customer is unlikely to be first and foremost in your mind. I’d suggest there aren’t many conversations along the lines of ‘hey boss, I know we could get the sale closed this month, but I think it might be an idea if they mapped out their requirements a bit more to check whether our software is the right fit for them’.

A lack of real world knowledge – for many involved in the industry there is very little appreciation of the real world practicalities of successfully applying technology. Take user adoption – from the early days of the CRM industry, getting people to use CRM technology consistently and systematically has been a challenge. The vendors have tried to address this issue by positioning their products as easy to use, but from a personal viewpoint I don’t believe there’s been any real progress in actually making CRM software easier to use in the last ten years. Instead the vendors might have been rather better off devoting their energies to non-technology based solutions such as honing implementation strategies and best practices.

As another example, when I issue requests for proposals for clients I’ll always ask vendors for an assessment of the client administration resources required to run their systems effectively. Strangely many will fail to respond at all, and those that do come in at widely differing levels sufficient at least to confirm that there is very little knowledge in the vendor community about what actually happens downstream from the initial sale.

A lack of resource – finally, as a result of their technology oriented approach, and, I suspect, a desire not to add complexity and length to the sales-cycle, the CRM vendor community has largely elected not to clutter up their product and service portfolio with the analysts, strategists, and experienced consultants who can effectively apply the power of the technology.

Perhaps in this respect they are victims of their own marketing hype. For years the CRM industry has sought to ‘educate’ their clients that CRM initiatives were simple and cheap, on the basis that this would best encourage software purchases. Having suitably established their client’s budgetary expectations, the market for the services their clients really need just isn’t there.

So in respect of generating value from CRM technology I’d suggest we’ve made very little progress in the last fourteen years. Where progress has been made, it’s been through pioneering users or a handful of consultancies like ourselves, rather than instigated by the CRM vendors themselves, and I don’t believe it should be that way.

Perhaps what surprises me most is that vendors have been able to get away with delivering so little real return for so long. Maybe the tougher trading environment will initiate a sea-change. After all we now understand there’s something fundamentally wrong with lending money to people who can’t afford to pay it back and labeling it risk-free debt. Perhaps a time is dawning where clients will realize that the august institutions of the CRM world need to do more to deliver on CRM’s remarkable potential.

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