Customer (or client) Relationship Management (CRM), if not invented by the Assyrians in ancient Mesopotamia, was undoubtedly refined and improved by these famous traders. Over the many centuries since the Egyptian traders conducted business the success enjoyed by organizations which invested resources to better understand their customers is well documented. One of the most vital assets of a company remains their list of customers. Successful salespeople made a point of knowing not only their customer's name but also their personal interests and characteristics. A relationship, even a business relationship, is built on more than product specifications, contract negotiations, and sales goals.
Personal computers enabled salespeople to take their stack of business cards and notes scribbled on napkins and organize them so important names and facts could be stored and recalled easily. It wasn't long before some bright young soul decided they could make money by providing a program which would do the organizing and retrieval functions. One of these “Customer Contact” or “Contact Management” programs was ACT! (which continues to be a popular solution for small business marketed as Sage Act). For a couple decades such software served sales forces and customer service groups in many industries, while incrementally adding features, functions and capacity.
The combination of larger, more complex organizations involved in larger, more complex transactions, and the never-ending quest for competitive advantage, resulted in the development of what is now called Customer Relationship Management systems. Though CRM systems are simply tools that collect, organize and present data, how well that process aligns with your company's structure and goals determines how effective it will be.
Three broad trends are being addressed by the many vendors offering customer relationship software. All CRM systems maintain an address book for all your customers. They track all conversations (customer contacts), and make the continuing history available to company operations other than sales, such as marketing, service, finance and senior management. Most provide tools, of varying capabilities, which help assess the effectiveness of campaigns and promotions. The newest developments are refinements, rather than fundamentals.
Each user of the CRM system can modify, edit, and create a unique view for themselves. The over-worked term “dashboard” is one way to describe this capability. The argument goes: a presentation of the important information, in a manner most compatible with each user, will increase productivity.
CRM systems built around the needs of one type of business can be fine-tuned to deliver the functionality needed, avoiding compromises required with a generic platform. One of the salient examples is the delivery of SaaS. SaaS vendors have unique needs in their relations with customers. One capability that will become steadily more pervasive will be the customer interface or gateway into the CRM system. The customer is able to initiate many of the actions they desire, from within their vendor's CRM.
The Cloud. Yes, everything may indeed end up in the “cloud”, but the trend here is toward access from anywhere or any time, along with the benefits of some other organization assuring your company's CRM service is always up and always functioning.
The top players in CRM hold their positions for one, or more, of three reasons: They were there early, they have huge market presence, or they do a good job. The top two for corporate America can claim to fit all three of these criteria; Oracle and SAP. SalesForce.com pioneered the concept of buying “seats” for your sales people, across the net, and ranks among the most successful in delivering CRM solutions to SMBs. Avaya and Microsoft are leveraging their positions in communications and personal computing, respectively, to offer customer support systems integrated with existing software and equipment.
For those more adventurous, penurious or simply in need of a unique solution, open source CRM vendors abound. SugarCRM has emerged as a top dog in this arena.
CRM is a dynamic, complex and rapidly evolving component of today's business environment. As with all tools, before making your choice, it is wise to fully understand how your business works and what you expect from adding a Customer Relationship Management system before plunging ahead.
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