CRM Nirvana—What Is It and Is It a Worthwhile Goal?

Like all great ideas, CRM has been oversold. The vision in the early days (the early 1990s) was for a completely integrated customer relationship universe, from which each employee would have a perfectly transparent view of each customer interaction. While very few implementations have reached this peak, those that have often prove that complete integration has its problems, as the level of detail available through integrated implementations can be overwhelming. For example, it's easy enough for a sales rep about to visit a customer to check the system and see that the customer has two support cases open. But for complex issues it may be difficult to correctly gauge their severity, requiring a call to the support team to clarify the situation, or worse, walking into a minefield at the customer site because of a failed interpretation of the notes in the system. More data is not always helpful. Beyond integrating the various customer-focused functions (for example, giving sales reps the ability to monitor support cases) lies another thorny problem: integrating the customer-focused functions with the back-office systems (allowing sales reps to have access to the accounts receivable records of the customer, for instance). In a funny way, as employees start to enjoy the benefits of tracking customer interactions, they may suffer more acutely from being unable to easily access information that is required to work with customers, such as accounting information or production information, but is stored in other systems. Finally, the vision from the early days now needs to include the web and the requirement that the systems be open to customers. Today's CRM nirvana includes appropriate portals so customers can buy online, access their buying history, interact with support online, and conduct all their business electronically if they need to. If we combine all of the factors above, CRM nirvana would be a completely integrated tool:

  • bringing together all customer-focused functions (so customer-focused employees can access all customer-related interactions through a single interface, at least within the limits of their authorization levels);
  • linking seamlessly to back-office data (so customer-focused employees can access any corporate data required to respond to a customer inquiry through a single interface, again as limited by authorization schemes);
  • providing online customer access (so customers can seek their own answers through the same systems, within the constraints of their authorization).

No one said nirvana was easy! CRM nirvana is not a bad goal in itself, although I'll come close to making that statement later in the chapter. But most companies can be very successful with a more modest approach. For example, many companies with a long, complex sales cycle can often isolate the sales process and issues quite successfully from the service side. Once the customer makes a purchase, they simply record that customer in the (separate) service-tracking system, ideally at the time of purchase but sometimes only at the time of the first service request, and take it from there. Service never sees the details of the sales cycle, and that's just fine. In such a setting, installing a sales-tracking tool that is not accessible from other systems or functions can be very successful. Even in environments where a completely integrated approach is required, starting with isolated pieces that are eventually brought together is often the right thing to do. This is because ambitious projects bring more risks because of their sheer complexity and the lack of a coherent executive sponsorship, which will be discussed at more length in later chapters. So CRM nirvana may be a good theoretical goal, but it's not essential in every case, and it should not be used to block a project just because the project is not comprehensive. Start your CRM project where it hurts and concentrate on getting that particular area taken care of. Ensuring that each individual piece fits in the larger picture is a secondary goal, although important in the long run, especially from the point of view of a CIO.