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Knowing the right questions to ask before evaluating CRM platforms

The right CRM platform can give your organization a big boost; not just in sales and marketing, but in every area of your customer engagement strategy.

A CRM platform brings a new competitive edge to your organization. The efficiencies and process improvements that extend from marketing campaign planning and personalized customer service to two-way customer engagements can help drive revenue through improved customer interactions.

Looking at the breadth and depth of the CRM platforms available today, it's easy to see why CRM is so widely adopted: It offers rich, powerful functionality for organizations of every size. But that variety can make choosing the right CRM platform overwhelming.

The first step, after you've determined that implementing CRM or adding to your existing CRM could benefit your organization, is browsing the tool store.

What you're buying

CRM technology is pretty mature at this point. The major CRM tools have been around for years and have kept pace with cloud and mobile growth. Many offerings are available for SMBs, and several niche products exist for those companies that only need a small subset of CRM functionality.

Because CRM technology is evolving so rapidly, it's useful to break it down by how long features have been around. This will help predict their importance; for example, which functions are older core features vs. which are new, such as artificial intelligence or chatbots, and may or may not be widely adopted by your competitors. This is especially helpful when evaluating what your competitors may be doing.

Core functionality: Traditional CRM platforms can be counted on to provide strong core functionality focusing on customer relations. Sales, marketing and customer service are the three main business areas supplemented by this functionality.

  • Sales: This includes customer profiling, customer management and customer targeting. A substantial, feature-rich customer management system is at the heart of most CRM platforms; it should help capture behavioral and demographic data and assist in the creation of customer type profiles.
  • Marketing: This entails lead management, as well as campaign design and management. Good sales come from good leads. CRM marketing functionality includes tools for lead-generation, the management of those leads and software for planning and tracking marketing campaigns.
  • Service and support: Core CRM functionality includes service support that enables the organization to acquire and retain customers.

Innovative functionality: Buying a new CRM platform doesn't automatically mean you've made your operations customer-centric. Many organizations use it now that it's harder to find strategic advantages, but innovations can be found. The following are some of the innovative functions supported by many CRM platforms.

  • Social CRM: Consumer monitoring, brand sentiment monitoring and social lead generation can all happen over social media channels. CRM platforms have embraced this new era in customer communication.

    Customers don't need to be sought out, as they freely congregate on the internet in predictable places and patterns. This enables many important CRM processes: bidirectional communication with customers, eavesdropping on what customers are saying about your brand online and keeping an eye on the competition.

  • Brand evangelism: With strong customer interactions via social media, it's possible to identify and cultivate brand enthusiasts as ambassadors for your company's products and services. A number of CRM platforms offer tools to suss these users out.
  • Peer-to-peer product support: In addition to cultivating brand ambassadors, it's also possible to create channels of communication between customers, augmenting in-house service operations with customers helping each other out.
  • Multichannel customer communication: Social media covers a lot of territory. Many CRM platforms integrate seamlessly with most social media channels, including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, in addition to the more traditional email and text channels. Make sure your CRM system covers the places in which your customers congregate online.
  • Business intelligence: Many CRM tools include baked-in analytics, with the ability to import and export warehoused data to support them.

Cutting-edge functionality: Everyone loves to be plugged in to the latest tech trends. When buying a CRM system, however, take a step back and think about the cost of implementation and training involved in your organization's adoption of a currently hyped technology or feature set.

Again, consider only what makes sense in your workflows, and also keep an eye on your competitors; a new tech toy may be what puts your company over the top. But remember, unsound purchasing decisions can also create CRM boondoggles.

Here are some interesting new advancements in CRM platforms.

  • Artificial intelligence: Smart cloud technology -- on-demand analytics and smart workflow in the major CRM clouds -- is more than a trend, it's a paradigm shift. This enhanced, AI-driven functionality is CRM's answer to the sheer volume of data now being piped into CRM operations, keeping sales and service staff focused on the information that is useful in the moment.
  • The internet of things: "Alexa, order me a Domino's pepperoni pizza." The internet of things (IoT) offers both consumer brands and B2B companies with amazing potential to do things such as fill consumer orders, monitor manufacturing systems to ship supplies and parts before they run out or wear out, and even predict next quarter's orders. CRM vendors have begun addressing these opportunities with tentative integrative IoT tools that will only improve in the coming years.
  • Retail integration: Last year, a major CRM vendor attempted to close the customer loop by purchasing a leading point-of-sale software vendor for the purpose of merging the platforms into one-stop shopping. Will this become an industry-changing trend?

    If so, this sort of acquisition, and the subsequent boosts in functionality, will become commonplace, and will make CRM and e-commerce a blended platform that cures the painful integration headaches many organizations experience today when merging siloed systems.

Niche functionality: Some organizations only need a little bit of CRM; some subset of functionality that fills in a gap or offers an industry-specific competitive edge.

  • Help desk: Cloud-based customer support is a natural next step in CRM for smaller companies. It enables, with minimal investment, a service upgrade that makes a company match the service levels of its larger competitors. There are CRM tools for this, as well as supporting analytics.
  • Marketing campaigns: Strong marketing is the starting point for the entire customer experience. Sometimes, this is the area a company really wants a jump start if it's already strong in sales and service.

Do you have partners? Consider this

Is your organization part of a supply chain? If so, CRM technology could enhance your performance within the chain. Gathering enhanced customer service analytics from your operations and making them available throughout the chain could add value for your partners. Engaging your partners' operational personnel -- in manufacturing, logistics or finance -- could inspire perpetual process improvements in house.

Odds are one or more of your partner companies already uses CRM. Would you benefit from doing the same? You wouldn't necessarily have to use the same platform, as many CRM suites can pitch and catch data from other systems.

Finally, there's the cloud: If you and your supply chain partners have systems in the cloud and are thinking of sharing cloud space, a joint CRM deployment may offer performance and efficiency gains while allowing you to share the costs.

Narrowing down your CRM platform choices

If it's time to buy, there are a few more questions to ask. These will help narrow down the potential choices and bring focus to the processes enhanced by deployment.

  1. What are your customer engagement needs? There is a vast range of customer engagement potential in CRM, from passively gathering customer brand sentiment from social media to cultivating brand ambassadors from among the most enthusiastic customers. What kind of engagement are you looking for? Today's platforms accommodate all of those.
  2. Do you need CRM to do one job or many? Some CRM platforms do everything, and some focus on a particular area of CRM, such as marketing campaign management or service desk enhancement. Create a wish list and go from there.
  3. Is the cloud a factor? Some organizations prefer the convenience of cloud access, some require it for ease of sharing resources with B2B partners and some prefer to keep everything on-premises. What's your company's preference? There's a CRM platform to match.
  4. Is mobile important? Mobile-friendly deployments are increasingly common, and even essential in some cases, as technologies enable field staff to get more done on the customer's turf. This factor could weigh heavily in your purchase decision.
  5. Are you using analytics? If so, what for? More and more business systems generate analytics for organizational decision support, and CRM is no exception. In fact, both descriptive and predictive analytics are central to the entire purpose of CRM. If your organization is using analytics or wants to begin using them, then the analytics of the CRM platform are crucial.
  6. Have you implemented IoT? Increasingly, enterprise systems and analytics processes are being augmented by IoT data. From manufacturing to logistics, to the products themselves, IoT is enhancing the richness of decision-making data.

    CRM platforms are beginning to integrate IoT, but using this promising channel can be a financial slippery slope. Be sure to take into account the total cost of ownership of an IoT integration, comprising purchase, setup and maintenance of sensors, as well as the costs for intake and the use of the data those sensors transmit -- on top of any CRM platform costs.

  7. Do you need to integrate data from other sources into your CRM processes? While many CRM tools can import data directly from other sources, several provide rich APIs that enable custom interfaces to be created.
  8. How much do you want to spend? One convenient feature of the CRM market is the wide range of payment options. Most offer a per-seat fee, as well as scaled costs based on the number of users.

Once you've taken a look at your own organization's operations, needs and potential, it's a matter of reviewing what's out there and finding the best CRM platform with which to move forward. Is that an enterprise-level, multifunctional platform, or a niche product addressing a particular facet of CRM? Do you need an on-premises tool set or functionality in the cloud? Armed with the right information, you can make a wise purchasing decision. 

Next Steps

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Learn how IoT enhances cognitive engagement

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This was last published in May 2017

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