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Convergence attendees rethink CRM initiatives for the modern era

Business people attending the Microsoft Dynamics Convergence conference talk about the difficulties and rewards associated with CRM initiatives.

NEW ORLEANS -- CRM can be viewed as a chore, an undertaking that many businesses see as too burdensome and confusing.

Those don't sound like very assuring words for companies pursuing CRM initiatives, especially when they come from the mouth of Bob Stutz, the vice president of Microsoft Dynamics CRM, and a speaker at the Convergence 2013 conference here. While the message was meant to illustrate that CRM has become easier to practice with modern technology, many business people nonetheless acknowledged that understanding customers is still hard.

Several executives and mid-level managers attending Microsoft's Dynamics Convergence 2013 conference in the Crescent City appreciate that today's CRM technology offers a fuller view of the customer than ever before. But many also spoke about the challenges facing them as they update existing or implement new CRM systems. Those challenges range from employees not buying into CRM, to companies not knowing which data to use to understand customer best.

Angela Allen, for instance, came to New Orleans with the hope of bringing back enough information on Microsoft's Dynamics CRM product to convince her colleagues that they should ditch an old CRM system and get with the modern era of monitoring and analyzing customers' social media postings, among other contemporary functions.

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Allen works as a sales coordinator and project planner for Bench Mark Foam in Watertown, S.D. The company manufactures expanded polystyrene, also known as white foam. It can be used to insulate vents, heating systems and roofing.

"I'm 33," she said. "The majority of people have been there for 30 years." Even though Bench Mark Foam's old CRM system "doesn't work right, the older generation likes to keep it around" because they're familiar with it. But it would be nice to integrate Microsoft Dynamics GP -- a supply chain management software product -- with Dynamics CRM software, she said, so that the company can connect product line information with customer data.

Travelocity, the online travel agency, also found CRM to be challenging, despite technological advances in the field.

"We have a lot to keep up with, and we're still integrating things into legacy systems," William Waters, a systems administrator for the company, said of CRM. The company has a CRM program that acts more like a relationship management tool for its company's marketing managers who handle the hotels that contract with Travelocity. The managers gather necessary data from these hotels, but some of them "think of it as a chore," he said.

Still, Travelocity can't ignore CRM because it provides many advantages, Waters said. For instance, marketing managers monitor social media postings of customers and tell hotels what they're doing right and wrong. This will help a smaller hotel that lacks the finances to have an IT manager on staff, he said.

In an interview following his address to the Convergence crowd, Microsoft's Stutz said users have long considered CRM to be a nuisance, partially because the practice of CRM was originally meant to help companies track the productivity of sales teams. "Sales people hated it. They knew it was trying to control them," he said.

But CRM has evolved to the point where customers willingly give feedback by using social media applications and companies of all sizes want to incorporate CRM technology, so long as it's simple to use.

"The expectations are different today," he said of CRM. "It's easy to use. The user interfaces are easy to use."

Indeed, because newer technology is making CRM easier, companies that had barely paid it any mind now consider it a priority. They recognize that customers will no longer stay loyal if they feel as if they're not in a fruitful relationship with a company.

BRFkredit, for one, is just now "in the process of getting more of a CRM attitude," said Allan Lassen, a "solution architect" for the Danish mortgage credit company. Because mortgages run for long terms, BRFkredit had little motivation to seek new data on customers, he said. But just in the past two years, the financial institution recognized it needed to make CRM a priority, he said.

First, it reviewed all customer data and tried to make sense of what it had, Lassen said. Next, it studied the challenges employees face in gathering customer information and getting sales leads. Lastly, it is now reviewing its engagement strategies with customers and learning how to anticipate their needs long before a mortgage expires.

"The old-fashioned vision of CRM has stopped," Lassen said.

Unlike BRFkredit, Merial -- a Deluth, Ga., manufacturer of animal pharmaceuticals -- focused on CRM years ago, said Larry Sibilia, the director of information services for the company. Being ahead of the curve allowed the company to recognize which CRM initiatives work, he said.

For instance, Merial knows it is a wise strategy nowadays to buy intermediary CRM software that allows users to quickly incorporate product changes, Sibilia said. It's best to stay nimble in case more change comes, he said.

While Merial has fully embraced the technology -- to the point where it arms its sales force with customer information on mobile devices -- Sibilia acknowledges that the company will probably never fully master the art of CRM.

"I don't think you can ever know your customer enough," he said. "I don't know if we can ever get there; you would need a lot of clean data."

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