Customer Relationship Management (or CRM) systems seem to have become the “must-have” tool for any company or organisation that has customers.

Worldwide spending on customer experience and relationship management (CRM) software grew 15.6% to reach $48.2 billion in 2018, according to research from Gartner, Inc. CRM remains both the largest and the fastest growing enterprise application software category.

However, the “C” bit is not a fair representation of what most companies need. It’s not just the customers they deal with but, in fact, any third party. The core of any CRM is really nothing more than an address book - a digital list of every third party - that includes customers, suppliers, service providers, government, local authorities and staff. Such a requirement transcends any type of business.

Once you get to the “R” in CRM, things get a little easier. It’s not that difficult technically to mark every contact record to show their relationship - for example: customer, supplier, reseller and so on.

It is when you get to the “M” bit, that things get complicated. True CRM systems need to take account of the actual business you are in, how you sell, how you buy, how you charge - in fact a plethora of industry-specific features. In reality, unless a CRM system is developed for a specific vertical market, then it is unlikely to meet the needs of an organisation. A legal practice, for example, will not handle its third parties in the same way as, say, a pharmaceutical wholesaler might.


Although many CRM providers have attempted to overcome this by allowing their systems to be customised, in so doing they drastically reduce the market. Customisation involves complication, training and, without in-house expertise, requires consultancy. CRM users may think that they are saving money by using an off-the-shelf system but they often lose any savings in paying for expensive customisation. Mostly, they would be better off going for a bespoke solution from the outset.

The vast majority of word processor users get by on the vast minority of features. Just ask any Word user how many macros they have written lately? So it is with CRMs. What most users want is simply an address book. It would be great if CRM systems could tell them where the next order is coming from, but they never can. Or even if they could, most users can’t trust their decision.


What users really want most is automation. People are busy. If they discover that a contact has changed company, they are generally so preoccupied in dealing with the matter in hand, that the last thing on their mind is to update the CRM system so that all their colleagues are aware of this change. If this can happen automatically, then everyone is happy. And it can. Today, most business communication is made digitally - be that by email, digitised phone calls or documents - and with the right intelligence all this can be extracted while hardly bothering the user. In fact, it is my contention that in addition to names and addresses, communications are the only things you need to store in a generic CRM system. Everything you might ever need can be extracted from the communications. Software is already available that works in conjunction with existing CRM systems to allow the automatic ingestion of emails, phone calls and other messages. The phone calls can also be transcribed and searched just like textual messages.

And “not bothering the user” is one key feature essential for user adoption. No CRM will provide return on investment if it doesn’t get user buy-in. Ease of use is important but equally important is trust. Employees will not use a system if they don’t trust it. Trust is gained only when the automated processes - such as changing contact details as a result of a phone call - happen reliably, but more than this, employees don’t want private information seeping in the CRM system.

Data Transparency

Last, but by no means least, the key to success of any CRM system is data transparency. Communications have evolved over the last 20 years from shared paper-based systems in steel filing cabinets to private email accounts. The massive gains from digitisation have been lost through unnecessary privacy. Once, authorised staff could wander up to a filing cabinet and view a purchase order or contract knowing it was unlikely multiple copies existed elsewhere. Nowadays, the information sender decides who should see the document by addressing it to individuals - most of whom are too busy to decide who else needs to see it. And if they do decide to share it, then that spawns a ton of identical copies, all with the potential to be altered or leaked to those not entitled to see it. It is bizarre that the customer should be making this decision. In many businesses, as much as 90% of non-confidential communications are unnecessarily kept private. As a result, the majority of those that are authorised and who could benefit from the information are oblivious to it.

In the last few years, there have been some massive strides in information technology. Yet these have resulted in working practices that often completely nullify them. For example, our digital culture has meant that many more staff can now work from home. But in so doing, they miss vital contact with other staff where much very useful information is exchanged.

CRM systems can go a long way to making up for this but it is important that they get user buy-in. That can be achieved by not just making them easy to use and eliminating unnecessary features, but also by not hiding non-confidential information. Transparency is key.


Written by Dr John Yardley, Founder and Managing Director of Threads Software

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