CRM: Spreadsheet of the New Millennium?

What the spreadsheet did to propel desktop computing in the '80s, CRM is doing for enterprise systems in the '00s.

What the spreadsheet did to propel desktop computing in the 80s, CRM is doing for enterprise systems in the 00s. Its the tool that sells more computation to companies, and its the raw material in which every vertical specialist wants to carve its own image of adding (or seeming to add) strategic value.

We swept the Web for three-letter labels ending in "RM" on pages that included a "relationship management" phrase. We found almost everything from ARM, or "attendee relationship management," for online conference hosting at www.b-there.com to XRM, or "eXtended relationship management," for dealing with nonhierarchical networks of companies, at www.alentis.com.

Only JRM, YRM and ZRM appear to have no one using them yet; the rest of the letters of the alphabet are engaged in labeling enterprise relationships for everyone from businesses and devices to talent and workers.

But do these putative specializations bring important added strengths? Buried in the blather of home pages and white papers, we did find a few key points that might provoke creative thinking and innovative application of CRMs potential.

At the Web site of LawNet Inc., an alliance of legal automation professionals, we found the phrase "relationship discovery" in an article by Rick Klau, a vice president at Interface Software Inc. Thats something a vertical specialist can contribute: knowledge of the types of relationships worth seeking out in raw data. For example, "Do you realize that 90 percent of our supply of ingredient X is controlled by the single parent company of three of our four suppliers?" Thats a question that might arouse a manufacturers interest.

Klau also said that a CRM system can better attract new users when it adds value to every piece of data that a user takes the time to enter. Speaking of his own target market, he observed that "attorneys derive immediate value from the system by being able to access critical relationship content such as who knows whom, who knows what and who knows how—even before theyve contributed any information into the system." It takes this kind of user relationship management (whoops, now were doing it ourselves) to propel adoption of CRM across the organization.

You can do a lot of things with off-the-shelf, general-purpose software such as a spreadsheet program. You can also buy tailored applications that are essentially pre-built spreadsheets for specific business functions. The first option gives the experienced manager every opportunity to incorporate personal experience into an evolving tool; the second option gives an enterprise the benefit of others experience and, not incidentally, feeds the starving children of vertical-market software developers and consultants. Consider both options when building or buying the elements of a CRM process.