CRM applications turn to the Web

For many companies, CRM has always ranked among the most challenging and multifaceted of enterprise technologies. Establishing the priorities among CRM goals and identifying the best approach to achieving them always varies greatly, depending on the industry sector, culture, and size of each organization -- which explains why, in 2001, CRM still meant different things to different people.

In other words, enterprises last year continued to pick and choose their CRM solutions from a large palette of options. Many stood by the ambitious, integrated, multilayered suites from tried-and-true vendors such as PeopleSoft Inc., SAP AG, and Siebel Systems Inc. But more and more companies also chose to address isolated business functions, such as contact management, SFA (sales-force automation), call centers, or marketing analysis.

Clearly, by focusing on a single aspect of the complex grid of customer interactions, enterprises were able to simplify their implementations, thereby making each project more manageable and ultimately more effective. But a phased approach also puts a greater demand on after-the-fact integration. For example, an enterprise that deployed a marketing analysis application when a successful SFA solution is already in place could be forced to adjust both applications so they can work from a common database.

Although those kinds of adjustments should be easier with applications from an integrated suite, many enterprises continued to shift toward mixed, best-of-breed solutions in 2001. The rationale: Any given component of an integrated suite is not necessarily the best tool for the job, so by combining solutions from different sources, companies can build CRM packages that better fit their business requirements and budgets.

Ironically, one of the factors driving this trend was the transformation of many vendors' client/server CRM products into software that can be served over the Internet and would be therefore easier to integrate with similarly built applications. Of course, longtime observers of the CRM landscape have already seen the Web's congeniality used to fulfill both pragmatic needs (such as delivering instant directions to a customer's address or ubiquitous access to a database of prospects) and more sophisticated objectives (such as collecting leads or connecting to a marketing analysis service hosted by a third party).

In addition to greater interoperability, Web-delivered CRM also offers other benefits, such as thin, Java-based clients that can be activated from any Web browser or computer, regardless of platform and location, and wireless clients that can connect remote workers to a central database using a smart phone or pocket device.

In short, the Internet has unleashed the potential of CRM applications, delivering more value for each company and sharpening the tools to help enterprises understand, serve, and anticipate customers' demands. The advent of Web services should propel CRM even further toward achieving its ultimate goal of boosting sales by giving customers the services and terms that keep them coming back for more.

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