Every year, ISM Inc. takes scores of CRM products into its labs, measures them based on a slew of business, technology and support features, and creates a ranking and a list of "winners."
While the rankings are highly read within the industry, the exercise also provides the Bethesda, Md.-based consultancy a perspective on the technological and business application trends that will impact CRM in the future.
For example, the evolution of CRM software will feature more vendors moving away from client/server architectures to Web-based applications, according to ISM.
That also means a major role for the extensible markup language (XML), said Damon Ross, director of technical services.
"A lot of the platforms have made a push away from the thin client to Web browser-based systems," he said. "XML is providing more real-time information systems for the dashboard. It's really very customer-centric and driven by request."
Major CRM vendors like Siebel Systems Inc., SAP AG and PeopleSoft Inc. (before it was acquired by Oracle Corp.) have addressed this through a portal approach, Ross said.
Vendors are also making a big push toward wireless functionality, according to Barton Goldenberg, founder of ISM.
While enterprise businesses have been hesitant to adopt wireless CRM, there has been some progress, particularly in mobile sales force automation (SFA) applications and for mobile field service. Vendors continue to build out their wireless capabilities.
"Nobody likes to be the first to jump into the cesspool," Goldenberg explained. "FedEx, Hertz and National, they started off with wireless systems not nearly as strong as what we're seeing today. That set the trend with people."
Goldenberg expects to see more wireless capabilities emerge with real-time analytics on the customer service side of the business. In fact, by 2007 Goldenberg believes all CRM applications will be available wireless.
"The issue becomes, 'are you a dinosaur or are you with us,'" he said.
Vendors are also paying attention to process-oriented architecture, such as Siebel's Universal Application Network.
"With CRM or ERP it comes down to people or processes," Ross said. Vendors "will look at how people get through the business processes. It's basically building an architecture around what the processes of the business are."
That is not always how CRM systems functioned. For example, when Siebel's first version was installed at Lucent Technologies in 1996 and the company needed to define its workflow for forecasting, it was "Siebel's way or the highway," Goldenberg said. Now customers will be able to use the vendors' tools but with a workflow flexibility. Otherwise customers will begin to look to vendors with the industry-specific functionality that they need, another emerging trend, ISM predicts.
"If you're not a vertical product you better have a process set that's flexible," Goldenberg said.
As many have predicted, business intelligence (BI) will also become increasingly important for vendors and customers alike, according to ISM. BI, analytic and CRM vendors are all beginning to merge together.
That will include both increased consolidation as well as partnerships between CRM and analytics vendors.
ISM also sees an increasing integration of computer telephony with contact center CRM software, an increased focus on the small and medium-sized market, more hosted offerings, customer survey management tools and employee compensation management tools.