Elements of CRM

CRM has grown into a dense and tangled field, and many vendors that provide only a small piece of the puzzle call themselves CRM vendors, making it difficult to sift through the claims. In addition, many back-office systems are sprouting customer portals and other features close to CRM functionality, so the boundaries are not as clear-cut as they were. Here's a survey of classic functionality categories for CRM systems (Screenshot).

  • Sales force automation (SFA). Some call it the star of the lot, and it was one of the two early drivers of the CRM field, the other one being support tracking. SFA tools track prospects, contacts, and activities, allowing managers to follow leads through the pipeline, forecast revenue, and catch bottlenecks. Many systems include aids to the sales process such as proposal and quote generators. Because of the revenue-forecasting requirements, SFA has always emphasized metrics even more than other areas of CRM.. A unique characteristic of SFA is the requirement for supporting mobile, disconnected users. Field sales reps need to download relevant account information to their PCs, update it while away from the office, and then upload it back into the shared system. This calls for robust synchronization capabilities so the downloads and uploads can happen quickly and maintain data consistency even if multiple updates occur.
  • Telemarketing and telesales tracking. Although they can be considered a part of SFA, tools for telemarketing and telesales operations tend to be quite a bit different because telemarketers often work from scripts, or at least in a much more structured environment. They do not need mobile, disconnected functionality. In many ways, their requirements are closer to those of support tracking and indeed many vendors offer contact center modules that can serve both inbound and outbound contact centers. ("Contact center" is the modern and accurate term for what used to be known as a call center). Part of the functionality of a contact center app is computer telephony integration (CTI), which allows information to be shared between the phone system and the CRM app. Typical apps of CTI include routing calls, either based on the incoming phone number or on information entered by the customer into the phone system as directed by menu choices, and the ability to display screens containing the caller's information a split second ahead of delivering the call (so-called screen pops). CTI can also manipulate the phone system based on information in the CRM database, for instance it can dial phone numbers as displayed on a user's screen.
  • Product configuration. Product configurators are tools that allow users to customize complex products to their exact requirements. Product configuration used to be an activity that took place off-line and outside the interactions with the customers, but now configurators are part of many CRM suites. This is partly due to the influence of e-commerce, which requires that instant configurations be available to customers.
  • Marketing automation. Often called campaign management, marketing automation allows the design, execution, and management of campaigns. Depending on the sophistication of the tool, the campaigns may use a variety of media and include segmentation and list management capabilities. Marketing event planning is another potential component of marketing automation.
  • Support tracking. With SFA, support tracking is the other historically important part of CRM. Basic support-tracking features include the ability to track the history of support requests from inception to resolution, including routing, ownership, escalations, and transfers. Integration with phone (CTI, described above) and electronic communication systems (e-mail and the customer portal, described below) is often provided, although by no means a given. Another important area is the provision of a customer database to track service contracts. The contracts area is where integration with the sales system or with the accounting system may come into play.
  • Field service. Field service has different requirements than service that is provided from a support center, much as a telemarketing group needs different features than a field sales force. Like field sales, field service employs a mobile workforce and it has special requirements such as the management of parts and spares. Many field service tools allow users to communicate through wireless communications.
  • Knowledge base. Knowledge base functionality is useful in all areas of customer-focused functions. There are really two different types of functionality here. One is the ability to expose the knowledge base to the users through a variety of search capabilities. The other, more important in many ways although less discussed (I think because it doesn't demo well), is the ability to support the creation and maintenance of documents. Knowledge creation and maintenance becomes very complex with large amounts of information. Knowledge base functionality serves both internal and external users through a permission scheme that allows only selected documents to be exposed to external users. Tools that separate internal and external knowledge base systems create a lot of extra work and miss the point of a knowledge base, in my opinion.
  • Customer portal. Web-based customer access to the CRM system is now an absolute requirement. Basic customer portals allow access to the knowledge base and to the request-tracking system, but more and more sophisticated functions are expected including branch locators, electronic downloads, online chat sessions, and so forth. Proactive e-mail alerts are often conceived as being part of customer portals. Customer portals and the functionality around them are sometimes called eCRM and the subsystems are called e-sales, e-marketing, or e-support. A lot of attention is now placed, and rightly so, on personalized portals, where customers can control what they want to see. Customer portals are also going wireless to serve customers that do not have access to traditional browsers.

    The customer portal should not be confused with the ability of internal users to access the CRM system through the web. Modem tools offer what's called thin-client functionality, whereby they can be manipulated through a web browser even by internal users. Older tools offer a thick-client interface in a traditional client-server setup, requiring installation of the client on each user's machine. (And, for complete confusion, older tools with modern ways offer both thin-client and thick-client interfaces, often with different functionality, not to mention different looks.) We will discuss the pros and cons of both types of interfaces in , "Defining Requirements for a CRM System."

  • Analytics. One of the benefits of CRM is an improved ability to view and analyze customer-related activities. Once a poor relative of other CRM functionality, analytics have become big business and are often sold separately as a value-added option. Although clever reporting is important, the main success factor for analytics is to have good data, so make sure that the data you need is indeed captured by the system, and that users are indeed entering it as required.
Screenshot Elements of CRM

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Some tools live on the fringes of the CRM world. For instance, workforce management tools provide functionality to schedule staff in customer contact centers, integrating sophisticated requirements about shift length, skills, and logistical constraints. Another example is monitoring tools that allow contact centers to record interactions for security or quality monitoring purposes.