In Pursuit of a CRM Process

Shun 'silver bullet' technology and focus on customers to build enterprise awareness.

Few high-profile IT labels have retained their glitz as long as CRM—customer relationship management, an umbrella title for almost every useful thing that can be done with enterprise IT systems.

From our vantage point overlooking the universe of IT products and services, eWeek Labs finds it useful to define CRM as the effort to track, attract, manage, interact with and support both current and potential customers—where the label of "customer" is expanding dramatically beyond its familiar meaning to include formerly captive relationships within a single enterprise.

Note, moreover, that this label thus defined describes a task—not a technology. The actual products involved may range from foundation database and Web servers to more specialized call center management systems, logistics and other fulfillment tools, and massive turnkey projects involving extensive customization of off-the-shelf modules.

When a buzzword-driven head office orders enterprise IT staff to build a state-of-the-art CRM system, everyone involved should recall the Moliére play about the newly wealthy man who aspired to join high society. When Moliéres social climber sought the aid of a master of philosophy to help him refine his language, he was startled to discover that he had already been speaking prose all his life; when he asked for instruction in how he could write a more gallant love letter, the master was unable to offer him anything better than his own sincere words. Even so, the title character in Moliéres "The Bourgeois Gentleman" paid richly for the advice he received—despite its minimal value.

So might managers be surprised to discover that CRM is something they have to do, not something they can buy, and that their own knowledge of their business is still likely to be the most important ingredient—now more than ever. No one should pay for overpriced assistance that purports to refine the process of improving customer relationships, while actually impeding that process with expensive complications.

When it comes to developing relationships, or to any other strategic business mission, the goal of IT is to stay out of the way of what works—not to prove the importance of technology by wrongly redefining success.

"Culture first, technology second," said CRM veteran Steve Horne, president of the New York-based Analytici CRM consultancy division of marketing group Foote, Cone & Belding, also based in New York. "If a company isnt ready or capable of changing its business processes and culture to focus on the customer, CRM will fail. The label of CRM is tarnished because companies have built huge infrastructures in the technology arena, but technology cant drive the process."