The 1990s was the decade for three letter technical acronyms that promised to change your business way of life.
One of the most fashionable was CRM, or customer relationship management. A host of companies promised to change the way we do businesses, how we react with partners and customers and how we take advantage of existing assets.
As is often the case with new technologies, however, it was unclear exactly what the systems did, who they would benefit, and how they should be integrated by an already over-stretched IT department.
Enterprise databases have always held extremely valuable information on customers, but that information was not always used to its best advantage. Through a combination of software, methodologies and internet capabilities, CRM promised to change this.
The technology is all about understanding customer requirements in order to increase sales. Of course this is not easy to do electronically, so a successful CRM deployment must be based on a number of components.
At the heart of the system is information about customers which can be analysed, shared and tracked. This is often known as knowledge management, and employees can gain a significant advantage from knowing how to use this information and knowledge successfully.
Consolidating databases is also extremely important. The ultimate goal is to have all interactions with a customer stored in the same place, allowing a company to vastly improve marketing, sales and customer support activities.
Once you have the information on customers, and it is all maintained centrally, the next aim is to interact with those customers. But this isn't quite as simple as it sounds.
Each customer will have its own preferred method of communication whether it be by email, phone or snail mail. A successful CRM system will dictate the seamless integration of all communications channels with the customer database.
A CRM system is about much more than technology, which is why it can often be confusing. A clearer explanation would be to call it a business process with its foundations in technology.
The technical aspect of CRM simply provides the means and infrastructure to deliver a service to customers and employees. Sophisticated tools do exist to automate the processes, and there is a myriad of companies on the market trying to take advantage.
But the crux of the matter is to ensure the ability of the organisation and the scalability of the technology infrastructure to cope with increased volumes.
An important thing to realise with CRM is that there is no 'one-size-fits-all' solution. Different vendors will approach the subject from different angles and every organisation will have slightly different needs.
Broadly speaking there are two types of CRM. One provides the ability to better understand the needs of the customer. Its purpose is obvious: to sell more. The second is based around customer service: the better you treat your customers the more likely they are to spend money with you.
It far more financially viable to keep hold of existing customers by making sure they receive the right levels of support and sales pitches than going out looking for new ones.
Probably the most difficult aspect of CRM is its implementation, a fact that early adopters of the technology learned to their cost. It is simply not possible to integrate the technology with customer databases and expect miracles without a great deal of forethought and planning.
Most CRM vendors will offer consultancy and advice on the system that will best suit individual needs, but it is well worth working this of yourself and determining what exactly you expect a CRM system to deliver.
Most users of the technology will have implemented it in stages to simplify the rollout. It is logical to start with the most problematic areas such as a struggling sales force, an under-performing call centre or a poor field service operation. When these are up and running successfully, a company can extend the rollout to include small projects.
There is no easy or concise way to explain CRM and its aims. It includes sales force automation, internet and e-commerce support, field sales and telesales, marketing automation, direct marketing, call centre services, help desks, field service automation, service history, analytics, sales compensation and contracts.
Underlying technologies include workflow, databases, business intelligence, data mining and datamarts.
It is important to remember that CRM is only a process. It will not work miracles. While it will certainly improve the way your company operates, and will enhance the efficiency and reliability of customer relationships, there is no replacement for good interpersonal skills.
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