Premier 100: CRM still in formative stages for users

It's software. It's a process. It's a bunch of Lotus Notes databases strung together.

For all of the noise being made these days about customer relationship management (CRM) technology, there appears to be little agreement on precisely what it is and what it can and can't do for companies. There's even debate over whether it's advisable to implement CRM applications immediately or put the whole exercise on hold until the software proves itself in a much broader way.

These were among the key points made during a CRM-related panel discussion at Computerworld's Premier 100 IT Leaders Conference here on Monday. And an electronic poll of the approximately 300 IT managers and other attendees in the audience lent credence to comments by the panel members about the relative immaturity of CRM as a technology.

In the poll, only 29 percent of the respondents said their companies have CRM systems up and running. Another 24 percent indicated that they have CRM projects underway, while 22 percent said they remain in the planning stages on such initiatives. Another 24 percent said their companies have no CRM plans at all on the table at the current time.

Panelist Evelyn Follit, chief information officer (CIO) at RadioShack Corp. in Fort Worth, Texas, said the consumer-electronics retailer is just now launching a CRM pilot project that's designed to integrate information about customers who shop both at the company's Web site and in its 7,000-plus stores. But there's already a demand from end users for the data that the new system is expected yield, Follit said.

Over the last 90 days, Follit and other RadioShack IT workers have hosted CRM awareness sessions for various business departments, including sales and marketing. "Now that we've created excitement about CRM, the ball has come back to us. I get notes from people in marketing and advertising where the subject line reads 'CRM envy'," she joked.

But that's not a universal sentiment, according to panelist Joe Puglisi, CIO at Emcor Group Inc., a Norwalk, Connecticut-based provider of mechanical and electrical construction services. Salespeople and other end users with knowledge about customers frequently are unwilling to share that information in a Notes database or other collaborative CRM system, Puglisi said. His point was backed up by another audience poll in which 47 percent of the respondents said the biggest problems CRM systems face are cultural hurdles, not technical ones.

"The issue is not technology," Puglisi said. "The issue is, what information about your customers . . . can you [actually] capture. It's too easy for sales and marketing to keep their own little black books, and, in the words of another speaker I recently heard, knowledge is only volunteered. It can't ever be coerced."

"CRM is not so much an application you try and implement, but an attitude in your company," said panelist Tom Thomas, president and CEO at software vendor Haht Commerce Inc. in Raleigh, North Carolina. The root of all CRM "is giving customers the information they want when they want it," he added. "It's the customer who's now in charge."

But not all customers are equal, which raises the issue of whether all should be treated equally under the CRM banner. For example, Follit said RadioShack plans to focus its CRM system on a relatively small percentage of its customer base. "Only about 20 percent of our customers give us 80 percent of our [revenue], so it wouldn't be effective for us to track every customer the same," she said.

Once CRM systems are developed, usage of and demand for the information they produce typically balloons, according to the panelists. But, they added, IT managers should be forewarned that quick success can result in data management and data integrity problems, particularly with homegrown CRM systems built on collaborative software, such as Lotus Notes.

"You have to be careful about the scalability of Lotus Notes databases," warned Cora Carmody, CIO at London-based software and industrial controls vendor Invensys PLC. "It's insanely easy to build Notes applications. But what's also insane is maintaining them."

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