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The analyst’s changing role

The way organizations consume and operate CRM systems has changed as the technology has grown to encompass more and more processes. That means viewing the market differently.

We’re now at a point in CRM’s evolution where we have sufficiency -- truth is, we’ve been there for a while. That’s not to say that we’re done adding to the solution set; the ongoing experience with social media is proof that the product set is evolving. But we certainly are at a point where all the bases are amply covered.

You can now buy, or license, CRM software that will run in your data center. Other products can be delivered as a service and there are multiple variations on how the service is provided. There is even low-cost or free CRM for companies on small budgets -- Zoho and SugarCRM come immediately to mind -- and there are delivery options there, too.  No doubt about it, CRM has arrived, and if you don’t have it yet that's surprising and almost unique.

On the way to this surfeit of products, CRM has managed to invent tangential software disciplines. SaaS and cloud computing were direct outgrowths of CRM, and while you can certainly make the case that an application or other technology delivered over the Internet need not be CRM to be a cloud service, CRM was nonetheless the parent application area and inspiration for many things cloud.

Nearly the same can be said for social technologies now embedded in, or at least closely working with, CRM. A few years ago there was social technology separate from CRM, but unless your name was Kevin Bacon, you probably didn’t take a lot of interest in it. Ditto analytics, which is still making its way into the greater CRM suite.

Analytics -- including business intelligence and data mining -- were things that few people in an organization used before they were incorporated into CRM. They are still less frequently used than social technologies, but that’s changing, too, as companies realize the significant competitive advantage they deliver.

Those who make a living analyzing movements in the CRM industry have done a good job of keeping up with the profusion of products and their categories, but as we reach this level of completeness our jobs are changing. It was once necessary and adequate to spend most of our time making sense of what a product did and categorizing it according to a fairly sparse hierarchy. But today that tree is full and our job is just as much about understanding the business process that a product is used for as where it belongs in the hierarchy.

It was once enough to know that a product was for sales, for instance, because the selling process was one-dimensional. We all had customers and we needed to monitor their contact and deal information, and that was about it. Sales force automation (SFA) was a simple relational database with an interface that reflected the rows and columns -- and not too many in either dimension.

Today sales software includes SFA but also, sales intelligence, pipeline management, sales analytics, configuration, pricing and quoting applications -- and that’s mostly for direct sales.  There are also a variety of solutions for channel sales for both the OEM/distributor and the partner. We also have applications for online selling as well as a variety of social applications for every level of selling that helps us understand the signals we give off as customers. There are blogs, communities, networking sites, forums and more all impacting selling in one way or another. I am leaving out some things, like portals, but this list shows just how well the tree has been filled out.

Marketing and customer service are just as crowded and, lest we forget, the original CRM suite also included help desk, field service and customer support, which were amalgamated with customer service. These areas have experienced healthy growth, too.

I recently participated in a webinar with Dave Fitzgerald, senior vice president for sales and marketing at Brainshark, a company in the Boston area. The webinar focused on pipeline management and an application set provided by Cloud9 Analytics. I think of Fitzgerald as a selling ninja and I was blown away by a slide in his deck that showed the constellation of applications that Brainshark uses in its approach to selling. Fitzgerald’s sales team has applications that support every conceivable part of selling, from leads to compensation, all anchored by Salesforce.com -- about 10 in all.

So, it’s immediately clear that selecting CRM applications today has become a job whose imperative is to clearly understand the business processes that a company engages in before any money changes hands. But where do you start? 

Unlike the early days when you bought SFA because you needed a sales solution and that’s all there was, today you need to ask a number of questions first. "Who is your customer?" is always a great place to start, followed by "What and how do you sell?"  And you can run through the same drill in marketing and service, too.

Those questions can take you a long way on your CRM journey and they highlight the importance of trustworthy analyst advice. You’ll still arrive at specific product categories, but that’s only the beginning.

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