Unscrambling CRM

Barry Briggs is one of the better-known CTOs in the world, given his stints at a variety of software companies, including Lotus Development. Today Briggs is on the customer side of the fence as the CTO of Wheelhouse, a Burlington, Mass.-based company that specializes in implementing CRM software on behalf of corporate clients. In his new role as an advocate for IT organizations that are coping with CRM chaos, Briggs talks about the critical role that Web services will play in bringing order to CRM implementations.

InfoWorld: What exactly does Wheelhouse focus on?

Briggs: Wheelhouse is about the technology of marketing and making CRM work. We've got about 40 consultants now who live and breathe CRM. We have a datacenter called the Applications Management Center where we build, test, and pilot applications on behalf of our customers, and we occasionally manage them, if they like. And we have a software group, which I run.

InfoWorld: Given recent economic events, what's the appetite for CRM solutions among corporate customers these days?

Briggs: Immediately following Sept. 11, there was a freeze on everything associated with business processes in the United States. But what we've seen lately is a resurgence of interest in CRM. In this whole economic downturn, CRM has been one strong trend in the industry.

InfoWorld: Why is that?

Briggs: Companies are refocusing on their core objectives, which are to make as much money as possible by extracting the most value from their customers as possible. It's really about how you codify in software the way that you interact with customers and give them ... the most satisfactory experience and ... get the most value from them.

InfoWorld: Has the economic downturn changed the way people approach large-scale projects such as CRM?

Briggs: We've really seen a difference in the way people want to buy, and we've adjusted our business model to meet that. Back in the glory days, people would spend $5 million on a piece of licensed software and then another $5 million on consulting services to make that software work. Then a couple of years later, they'd realize that they never got the ROI that they expected to receive. Now what they're saying is they want to try out these applications first, tune them somewhere else, and understand what the ROI is going to be before they deploy them. That's the whole purpose of our datacenter. We can actually build pilot instances of these applications with real customer data.

InfoWorld: The whole CRM software category seems somewhat jumbled. Why is that?

Briggs: It's not the most well-defined space right now. The reason for that is there are just so many ways of dealing with customers. Analytical CRM ... encompasses data marts, data warehouses, legacy customer databases, and so forth from operational CRM systems. Operational CRM systems encompass Web servers, call centers, sales force automation applications, and so forth. We think the big challenge [is] making all those systems play together in a coherent and a consistent way.

InfoWorld: What impact will Web services technology have on integrating all those disparate systems?

Briggs: Web services have the potential to change everything in this respect. It provides a great industry standard pipe from one system to another. The problem is that there are so many different mechanisms and pipes out there for linking systems together and nobody could agree on one. With Web services, you have the opportunity for a standard pipe that everyone will use -- which all the vendors and all the touch-point systems will inevitably support because the momentum is so strong.


Barry Briggs, Wheelhouse

* Age: 48.

* Title: Vice president of engineering and CTO.

* Biggest success: Knowing that he helped create Lotus 1-2-3, the best selling application of its time -- and that at any given moment, someone in the world was running his code.

* Key challenge: Enterprise CRM infrastructures.

* Favorite escape: Writing novels, such as Land of the Morning Storm.

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