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Are chock-a-block CRM features bloating CRM platforms?

CRM systems abound with different functionality and features in today's market. But is that a blessing or a curse for CRM buyers?

As the customer relationship management (CRM) market matures, vendors may be leading consumers down the wrong path. While customers are looking for solid systems that can easily integrate with other data and back-office systems, vendors are packing platforms with more features that are not necessarily tailored to customers' needs.

Loading up CRM platforms with endless features does not mean that the feature set is even useful, however, or is answering customer needs. Consider what Forrester Research analyst Kate Leggett said on this problem.

Each of the leading vendors in this mature market offers a checklist of features and functions. Remember that more is not better; many times more is just more. In fact, when you don't need or can't use extra features, more is sometimes worse. CRM buyers must understand the market segmentation in order focus in on the right category of vendor that is the right size for their needs.

The original intent of CRM systems was to manage relationships with customers. In those early days, CRM focused on having a searchable list of customers with associated data. For example, the initial release of ACT! nearly 30 years ago gave a business a tool set which was comprised mostly of contact data storage. As time went on, many of the new players started to add functionality around the pre- and post-sales processes.

Some additional functionality was a blessing. When email became the mainstay of business communication, the ability to relate that email to a customer record and start to build a history was invaluable.

New CRM features, new problems

A key turning point was the relational data model and the opportunity to customize a CRM system. But this was a double-edged sword. The ability to customize to business needs was a massive boon to the CRM market. Every business has its own processes and data requirements and CRM systems instantly allowed for the creation of new fields, but also whole entities, with relationships to other record types.

If CRM systems are more bloated, they have expanded their functionality beyond the days of pure customer management.

For example, a CRM system that is more oriented toward real estate management may have, as a center of its relational model, a property, which is something that the CRM system itself is unlikely to have out of the box. The ability to create a "property" or "building" entity or record type, with the associated address and description fields, might be that starting point. Most CRM systems would then allow you to relate that custom entity or object to a standard record type, perhaps a contact record. Many systems also enable you to add existing fields, or relational data, within a custom record; so, in the example of a building, we may add a lookup (a type of relationship) to a contact record and call that field Property Owner. In this context, a standard record type (contact) would be used in the context of a Property Owner. This flexibility in allowing customization -- often right within a user interface -- provides extensive flexibility for CRM systems.

But while customization moved CRM systems forward, suddenly CRM features spanned an increasing number of business functions and operations. CRM systems could now take you from a pre-sales lead through the acquisition process, product management, quote, order and invoice production to post-sales support and even field force management -- often within the same application.

This became daunting for many companies that were looking for a subset of functionality. The appetite for advancement continued, however, with major players such as Microsoft and Salesforce buying new functionality to enhance their offerings, particularly in the realm of marketing automation. Marketing platforms such as Salesforce's ExactTarget and Microsoft's Marketing Pilot were integrated to fill gaps in pre- and post-sales communication role. Parature, a customer service application, was bought by Microsoft to enhance the already mature customer support areas of Dynamics CRM.

At the same time, other providers tried to offer modular technologies. Salesforce split its offering between a sales-focused and a service-oriented one (known as the Sales and Service Clouds). Smaller solution providers like Zoho offered a more modular approach, which appeals to smaller businesses.

So, if CRM systems are more bloated, they have expanded their functionality beyond the days of pure customer management. Yes, the off-the-shelf technology may offer you a host of functionality you may never use or need, but the options are available.

Just as email was king of the communication channel in business during the 1990s -- and still is to a certain extent -- new customer communication channels such as social platforms, live video chat and mobile are important new channels for companies to cultivate, track and manage in a CRM platform. So too, inbound marketing options, integrated into a CRM, give new insights into what a customer needs. Salesforce Marketing Cloud, for example, allows outbound marketing and communication to be sent via email and SMS text based on CRM data. Building a customer journey map based on a customer's location, spending habit or other activities expands core CRM functionality.

Recently, a company recorded in its CRM database when customers opened and read its marketing email messages. This provided a demographic of users who read emails after midnight and, along with age data, allowed the company to offer targeted marketing campaigns to these customers. The ability to integrate social interactions including Facebook and Twitter -- many of which provide near-native data integration to popular CRM solutions -- means that customer comments and preferences can be monitored and managed within a CRM system. Again, many of the major CRM vendors have modules to provide this link -- Social CRM for Dynamics and Radian6 for Salesforce, for example.

So, while CRM platforms may suffer from too many CRM features, companies now have the power of choice. Their ability to identify what they truly need and how to use it to connect with their constituencies is how they can prevent themselves from falling prey to CRM feature bloat.

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