8 CRM Trends You Need to Watch

Customer relationship management vendors and industry analysts discuss which CRM trends will continue to gain strength and what new trends IT professionals need to watch.

Last year, the two hot customer relationship management trends to watch— and adopt — were social CRM and mobile CRM. To find out whether they will continue to dominate the CRM landscape and what other trends organizations should pay attention to, CIO.com talked to leading CRM solution vendors and analysts. In the process, we came up with eight CRM trends to watch—and implement— in 2012.

1. Cloud-based CRM Services Will Continue to Gain Traction

"Old CRM was people inside the company talking about [customers]," says Peter Coffee, vice president and head of Platform Research at Salesforce.com. Increasingly, however, "the information that's most important in a CRM system originates outside [company] walls, in conversations on social networks and in other external sources." Cloud-based applications are ideally suited to capturing this information and turning it into actionable intelligence, Coffee says. It no longer makes sense "to continue investing in on-premise infrastructure whose job is to go out into the cloud and scoop up intelligence when cloud-based [software] can do that better as well as more cost effectively," he says.

2. It's All About the Interface

"Application usability is becoming a more important issue within the enterprise, and CRM is no exception," says Mitch Lieberman, vice president, market strategy for Sword Ciboodle, a global provider of customer engagement solutions. "Users are picky about their workspace, now more than ever represented by the screen in front of them," which could be a laptop computer, an iPad, or a smart phone. In addition, users don't want to have to remember keystroke combinations such as alt-tab to make things work. "Data needs to be available through one UI [user interface], in context," he says. So the CRM software you use (or choose) should be accessible and comprehensible on both a traditional and mobile platform - with a customizable, user-friendly interface.

3. CRM Will Be the Place to Pull It All Together

As the number of ways in which companies interact with customers continues to grow, CRM systems will play a bigger role in building quality relationships, says Pamela O'Hara, president of Batchbook, a social CRM solution provider. "Businesses that use CRM effectively will benefit from pulling all the loose strings together in one place and developing a stronger bond with each customer," O'Hara says. Furthermore, by centralizing customer data, she argues, "companies will be able to provide better service and more targeted offers to customers."

4. CRM Integrates With Other Critical Business Systems

"Buyers will expect CRM to be woven with ERP, ecommerce and professional services automation applications, to get more integrated and efficient business processes," says Paul Turner, senior director of product marketing at NetSuite. "Organizations want integrated lead-to-cash processes, an integrated view of the customer, and more comprehensive cross-functional reporting - and vendors will try and adapt their offerings to meet this demand." But he warns decision makers to beware of applications that grew up separately and are glued together. "Look for systems that are designed from the ground up to work as a single solution to get the maximum benefits," he says.

5. It's All About Flexibility

"As users better understand the options in delivery models, interfaces, data practices and other technical aspects of CRM, they are factoring these variables into their buying decisions," notes Clint Oram, co-founder, CTO and vice president of Product Strategy for SugarCRM, an open source CRM vendor. "That will give CRM applications designed for ease of integration and user self-customizability an advantage, and will leave vendors whose products come in a single flavor of SaaS [software as a service] scrambling to expand customer options, often through cumbersome workarounds." To that end, Oram believes open source software, because it allows users to easily make changes and customize the software, will continue to gain on older on-demand CRM models in 2012.

6. CRM Will Continue to Go Social

After making significant gains last year, social networks are becoming a more influential part of the decision making process for consumers, O'Hara says. As a result, CRM software vendors "will continue to incorporate social into their products, allowing businesses to better understand subtle trends and niche adoptions of their sales and marketing efforts," she says. "CRMs will also use social networks to provide ways for business teams to better communicate across sales and support channels within the CRM platform."

7. Mobile Applications Will Empower Customer-Facing Workers and Consumers

"In 2012, CRM systems will be bought in terms of the strength of the mobile component," Oram argues. "Vendors with strong mobile components will gain a significant advantage over those that lack it, and many vendors will play catch-up around native clients and security."

William Band, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, agrees. "Mobility has become a key corporate priority," he notes. "In particular, the ability to use handheld mobile devices to support customer-facing workers like sales contacts and customer service activities in the field has clearly moved beyond its previous status as a specialized nice-to-have option and into the mainstream."

8. Crowdsourcing Process Improvements

"Organizations will increasingly try to harness the voice of the customer to prioritize process improvements and help back-office employees better understand customer expectations," Band predicts. "Providing more customer feedback to employees across the organization in the form of survey results, customer visits, social sentiment data and the like [will] help employees better understand the impact their decisions have on the customer."

Jennifer Lonoff Schiff writes regularly about CRM and runs a marketing communications firm focused on helping organizations better interact with their customers and partners.

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