After suffering the slings and arrows of Gartner and others who questioned its value in early 2003, it looks as if CRM is coming back with a vengeance -- due in large part to the enterprise's unprecedented rediscovery of that always distasteful creature: the customer.
Grudgingly acknowledged as a necessary evil, the customer has been, at least until now, always considered a pain in the neck. Historically, enterprises have been focused on back-office, manufacturing, and various other internal processes.
But according to Kevin Nix, group vice president and general manager of CRM solutions at Siebel Systems, executives suddenly want to look at their companies from the perspective of their customers. "The 'ah-ha' is that companies want to be customer-driven enterprises," he says.
Today's executives want their employees to put themselves into the mind-set of a customer, whether that customer is phoning a call centre, walking into a branch office, or maintaining a relationship with one store. If a long-time customer makes a purchase through another channel -- whether brick and mortar, Web, or wireless -- executives want the new store to know who that customer is.
What sounds like a simple idea to sales and marketing can be a huge challenge to IT, however. For example, suppose one sales channel breaks down. How do you move the customer to another channel before he or she abandons your Web site, your store, or your inbound call centre?
The truth is, the more you gear your IT processes to the way your customer wants to do business with you (and not the other way around), the more loyal your customer will be. That's the big idea currently rippling across the enterprise.
Yet, CRM systems rarely hold all the information you and your customers want. They just add a layer describing customer needs and preferences in order to make data found in financials, SCM, manufacturing, and other systems more meaningful.
During the past year, a number of solutions have bubbled up to help businesses make the most of CRM. Siebel's UAN (Universal Application Network), Salesforce.com's Sforce, and SAP's Master Data Management all promise to synchronize customer data with other systems.
But obviously, if you want your customers to have a 360-degree view of their relationships with your company and vice versa, a great deal of integration work will be required. As your company decides that it too wants to be customer-driven, my advice to you as IT professionals is, you'd best get with the program.