At its core, the idea behind employing a customer relationship management (CRM) application is relatively simple. It provides a means through which organizations can holistically keep track of how they are engaging customers. In some instances, that’s as simple as providing a salesperson with an application that enables them to keep track of the customers they directly engage. In more advanced use cases, sales managers have deployed CRM applications that function as a shared database through which the entire customer experience can be tracked across an entire sales team.
As usage of CRM has evolved, it’s now possible for sales teams to not only track sales order histories, they can, thanks to integration with any number of other applications see, for example, how many service calls have been made to a customer in the last six months. That capability can provide invaluable insight into the mood of any given customer before another call gets placed or email is sent.
CRM Data Is the Base
More significantly from an IT perspective, customer records stored in a CRM application have emerged as the one source of truth about the relationship with the customer. Historically, organizations have wrestled with data quality issues stemming from, for example, simple issues such as the customer name or address being rendered differently in multiple applications. To resolve that issue, many organizations are making their CRM application the de facto standard for rendering that information. That decision has then given rise to a need to integrate everything from accounting applications to entire supply chain systems with CRM applications.
CRM Systems Integration Key to Success
At the same time, organizations also want to be able to engage customers more efficiently as part of emerging digital business transformation strategies. CRM applications, as a result, are now being integrated with everything from e-commerce systems to marketing applications. In some instances, individual sales people are being armed with marketing applications within a CRM system that enable them, among other things, to target specific customers with unique offers.
Given the inherent complexity of all those integration efforts, many organizations are opting to rely on cloud services known as integration platform-as-a-service (iPaaS) environments to accomplish that task. For example, cleverbridge, a provider of IT services, recently unfurled a set of integration services based in the iPaaS developed by Scribe Software.
Israel Greene, business owner of success services for cleverbridge, says it’s getting harder now to tell in many cases where a CRM application ends, and other applications begin.
“The line is getting blurrier every day,” says Greene.
In general, however, Greene adds that most organizations typically underestimate how long it will take to integrate CRM applications with all their backend systems.
Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning Changing CRM Capabilities
Going forward, that challenge is only likely to increase as organizations seek to apply advanced analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) applications based on machine and deep learning algorithms to the data they collect about customers. Organizations are investing in advanced analytics and AI in the hopes of being able to better predict what products and services an organization is likely to purchase next. Armed with that insight, organizations are hoping that salespeople will be able to proactively close deals before rival organizations are ever made aware that there is a potential opportunity.
While there’s naturally a lot of trepidation when it comes to how AI may affect hiring broadly across the economy, a survey of 500 attendees of the Dreamforce 2017 conference hosted by Salesforce that was conducted by Samanage, a provider of IT services, finds 64 percent are excited about the opportunity to employ technologies such as AI, voice recognition, chatbots, and machine learning for data analysis. A total of 63 percent also said that they are optimistic that AI will eliminate tedious work. Only 7 percent said they fear that AI will put their jobs in jeopardy.
Similarly, a recent survey of 1,800 Salesforce customers worldwide conducted by Bluewolf, a unit of IBM that focuses on CRM integration, found 77 percent of companies already using AI expect to increase their investment over the next 12 months, and 38 percent of Salesforce customers expect to invest in AI within the next year.
Given the impact that AI applications are already having on consumer applications, it’s now only a matter of time before customers expect to see the same capabilities being applied to business-to-business (B2B) applications, says Steve Stover, vice president of product and alliances at Samanage.
“We’re still in the early stages,” says Stover. “But all these capabilities will soon be standard features of an application.”
How CRM Apps Are Really Used, and Who Really Uses Them
It’s hoped that all these advanced features will increase reliance on CRM applications. A recent survey of 200 sales representatives conducted by InsideSales.com, a provider of a CRM application delivered as a software-as-a-service (SaaS) application, finds that on average they only spend 37 percent of their time on revenue-generating activities. In addition, the survey finds, on average, they only spend 18 percent of their time using a CRM application. Most of the usage of CRM applications is driven by sales managers and chief financial officers (CFO) that make it a requirement to get paid versus CRM software being a tool that sales that representatives enthusiastically embrace. It’s not uncommon for sales representatives to manage their customer interactions using everything from e-mail to spreadsheets before deciding to enter more “curated” data about their interactions with customers in a corporate CRM application. More recent updates to CRM software have made it more enticing to sales representatives to proactively use CRM applications that provide more visibility into how much compensation they might earn in a quarter. In addition, mobile applications are making it much simpler for sales representatives to not only enter data right after visiting a potential customer, but also present the client with relevant data during the meeting.
Modern CRM applications as a class of application software now span a broad range of functionality, from a simple database of customer names that is little more than a salesforce management application to enterprise-class software being used to manage customers that are engaged across multiple channels. Regardless of the level of sophistication being applied, it’s clear that CRM applications increasingly have the potential to become the center of the customer engagement universe.