It's easy to think that CRM systems are "just a database," since they hold parametric and text data and handle it more or less transactionally. \n\nWhile parametric CRM data is the core of many a report and dashboard, it's actually not the most important data about the evolving customer \n\nrelationship. Because those parametric data represent only the current state of play, to understand the history means following the sequence of \n\nchanges in audit trails: quite difficult, and less than enlightening.\nCRM Definition and Solutions\nThe juicier data about the customer relationship \u2014 both in marketing automation and traditional CRM systems \u2014 is in a sequence of \n\nrecords that are mostly text and are more like a journal than a transactional history. The simplest of these records is a free-form notes record \n\nwhich is almost invariably input manually. Notes records track the author, time of creation, time of update, access privileges, a subject line, and a \n\nfree-form text field. Notes are typically attached to main CRM records (such as lead \/ contact, account, deal, order, contract, or case). While \n\nnotes are easy to use, their lack of parametric data make these text records almost impossible to report on. Even so, it's way better for users to \n\nput running commentary in notes than in the main record's comments or description field because the notes will be smaller, less likely to be erased, \n\nand can be easily sorted by chronology, topic, or author to provide a low-grade thread view of long conversations.\n\nThe next level of text-based relationship tracking is the task, meeting, event, or activity record. While each CRM system implements the details \n\ndifferently, these activity records provide more parametric data and structure to a free-form text field. Like notes, these records can be attached to \n\nnearly any main CRM object \u2014 anything that might require action. Activity records are used to initiate and track pending action items and \n\nto record the results of meetings or events. Typically, activity records include fields such as type, priority, status, due date, participants, notification \n\nparameters, and pointers to the people or entities to which they relate. Activity records may support document attachments, but it is typically not a \n\ngood idea to use attachments here, as they can be easily missed by users, effectively buried in the system's object tree. Activity records are \n\ntypically extensible with a few custom fields and are accessible via the system API. They are rich enough to support simple workflows (e.g., task \n\nstarted, task handed off, task completed), and are sometimes used by applications to record activities or state changes. Consequently, activity \n\nrecords are frequently used for reports, dashboards, and triggers for alerts or workflows.\n\nWhile activity records are a powerful (and typically underutilized) functionality, they have limitations. The main actors in activities must be system \n\nusers, so recording customer initiated actions in an activity is counterintuitive. In a latter-day version of reverse polish notation, recording a \n\ncustomer action as an activity looks like this: "UserName noted CustomerName action." Further, activities are typically one actor and one or two \n\nparticipants, which means that recording group actions is clumsy. When a large group of participants each responds on their own schedule, \n\nrecording each of these responses as an activity can become ridiculous.\n\nCampaigns are a relatively recent development, designed to resolve the limitations of activities and serve as the focal point for the marketing \n\nfeatures of CRM systems. Campaigns are also underappreciated and frequently underutilized. Campaign records are highly structured and can hold \n\ndozens of parameters, and the tables are fully extensible. But their real power comes from the number of objects that point to campaigns, the \n\nnumber of objects campaigns point to, and its related table (called campaign members in Salesforce.com, but the table name varies by \n\nCRM\/marketing automation system vendor). For each campaign, the campaign members table shows all the participants (leads or contacts), their \n\ncurrent status, and their membership join or update date. This collection of information lets you understand things like:\n\nHow many times have we touched a lead?\nWhat are each of the activities they participated in?\nWhat items did they download?\nWhich topics did they receive e-mail blasts about?\nWhat e-mail messages did they open? Respond to?\nWhen were they sent their renewal notice?\n\nWhile the Campaign record doesn't do all this for you automatically, it is the most logical place to store all these data (typically from outside \n\nsystems such as e-mail blasters, Web site, advertising engine, etc.). While you could put all this information into a long series of activities, the data \n\nwould not be well structured for viewing, reporting, or dashboards. When evaluating external applications, look for how deeply and tightly they \n\nintegrate with the CRM system's campaign records.\n\nIn addition to a rich data structure, campaigns typically have a lot of business logic to support pipeline and marketing impact analysis. The system \n\nmay tabulate the number of responses, new contact conversions, new sales opportunities, and the pipeline value for each campaign. While there \n\nare a lot of assumptions behind these calculations and the numbers are often wildly misinterpreted, they are a powerful tool for understanding and \n\noptimizing marketing spend.\nThe Right Tool for the Job\nUnderstanding the state of play in the evolving customer relationship means a lot more than just parametric data. CRM systems need to have ways \n\nof showing the sequence of interactions and events over time. Each of the records described above has an important role and provides a better \n\nalternative than what the na\u00efve user tends to use:\n\nNotes records are way better than comments fields for documenting conversations and discoveries.\nActivity records are way better than notes for documenting meetings, calls, e-mails, and action items.\nCampaign records are way better than activities (or the deadly lead source field) for documenting group outreach, calls to action, and customer \n\nresponses to offers.\n\nUse the wrong one for your particular information, and you'll end up with almost no reporting or analytical perspective on the customer interaction. \n\nSometimes, you won't even be able to find what you entered later. So it really pays to stop using the wrong type of record, and remarshal your \n\ndata so you can use the right tool for the job.David Taber is the author of the new Prentice Hall book, "Salesforce.com Secrets of Success" and is the CEO of SalesLogistix, a certified Salesforce.com consultancy focused on business process improvement through use of CRM systems. SalesLogistix clients are in North America, Europe, Israel, and India, and David has over 25 years experience in high tech, including 10 years at the VP level or above. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline.