CRM strategy turns 25 – but has it helped CX?


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The original promise of CRM

When CRM strategy was envisioned by its creators, they dreamed of utopia customer encounters.  Driven by platforms and processes that put customers at the center, they would bust down channel and functional silos, and deliver consumers seamless functional experiences across marketing, sales, and service.  But after 25 years and several incarnations, by most accounts, CRM’s impact on customers’ experience has been underwhelming.

Cast as a customer-centric revolution enabler, CRM strategy was supposed to fuse marketing, sales, and service, across data, channels, process, and analytics.  In retrospect that hasn’t happened.  And though CRM projects (and their resulting systems) have brought some benefits (mostly to sales automation and customer service), the vast majority have fallen short on a primary goal:  to fully integrate marketing, sales, and service.  In fact, as early as 2001 Gartner shot up warning signals, publishing research showing over 50 percent of CRM projects failing to deliver on promises in the early days.

Why?  As CX practitioners, what can we learn from those fits and starts?  Where has CRM strategy moved the customer engagement needle, and where has it fallen short and remained somewhat irrelevant?  What are the primary lessons and which mistakes must we avoid?  Early on, was the vision simply ahead of the technology?  As the technology evolved, was it the people, politics, and organizational issues that couldn’t keep pace?  Are we generally ready now, and can we push a magic reset button and expect a very different result?

CRM’s evolution

The early 90’s – CRM is born

In 1993, Don Peppers and Martha Rodgers published what became known as the bible of the new marketing, “The One to One Future: Building Relationships One Customer at a Time.” [i] That helped propel CRM evangelists in the direction of a one-to-one vision, and forward toward that goal.

Like a torch passed to a new generation, it ushered in an era where technology was propped up as the propeller to power CRM transformation – in effect, a CRM tech space race.  For the next 15 years pundits spoke of technology that could unify customer data and processes across channels and functions.  Many of those same people made millions selling CRM tools.  With a monolithic agenda and nascent (or in many cases non-existent technologies), some companies tried swallowing the elephant in giant bites.  Just as with ERP systems, they often found themselves as the lab rats, racking up huge bills, only to realize they had tackled but a small fraction of the vision.  The result: these projects delivered anemic value to consumers and their organizations.

2000 – 2010

Ten years in, Paul Greenberg wrote his book called “CRM at the speed of light”, which became known as the bible of the CRM industry (apparently there’s a bible for everything).  In concepts, it was ground breaking.  He essentially said the focus must be on human interactions.  Since every prospect or customer is a human, what this taught us was CRM strategy is all about human relationship management.  In other words, if your customers do not like you (and the experiences they get from you), they won’t do business with you.

At about the same time, Mark Benioff, with years of Oracle and Seibel experience, saw fundamental technology issues with first generation CRM.  He set out to right the heavy-weight CRM tech ship.  Declaring “an end to software”, he created the software as a service model, and launched startup Salesforce with ticker symbol CRM.  Both Paul and Mark provided generous helpings of vision and technological concepts – but again, how much did those really improve customer experience across entire journeys?  Honestly, in the ensuing 10 years, not that much.

From its onset, marketers mainly ignored CRM.  To them, it was both too theoretical and in practice focused on non-marketing business problems, such as inefficient sales activities and service case management.  Case in point: Salesforce, with its CRM ticker symbol, didn’t even purchase its first marketing company (Buddy Media) until 2012.  Marketing’s contributions to customer experience continued, essentially disconnected from sales, service, and other crucial customer-facing functions.

The post 2010 era

By 2010 CRM had accumulated such a negative stigma that a new term emerged, CX (Customer Experience), as an attempt to reincarnate and re-orient CRM.  The new lingo was fresh; a CRM reboot for those who felt it never lived up to its experiential promises.  CX, its advocates touted, will finally force brands to look through customers’ eyes, with them judging whether relationships are exceptional or abysmal.  With a purpose squarely positioned to affect the customer’s plight, the original CRM strategy now seemed poised to have its intended cross-functional influence on customer experience.

CRM 2.0?

In the eight years since 2010, however, common complaints remain indicating not enough progress has been made.  For example:

  • Customer journeys, starting with awareness, moving to sales interactions during purchase consideration, and to service during onboarding, still are often disconnected, dysfunctional, and underwhelming.
  • Customer interaction history repositories are scattered, resulting in sub-optimal experiences, such as customers getting offered products they already purchased.
  • Decision-making rules, logic, and analytics are not centralized, causing conflicting experiences, like marketers offering discounts different from sales associates.
  • In-channel experiences are poorly personalized and inconsistent. Take web content that often appears very different from email content, when essentially the same message is being delivered.

Mull over some of these sobering statistics in those ensuring years:

  • In a 2013 survey by Infosys of 1000 consumers, 73 percent said they’ve never experienced online personalization.[ii]
  • Zendesk’s survey of 7000 consumers revealed 89 percent of respondents thought brands must work harder to create a seamless experience.[iii]
  • In Bain’s 2018 survey of 700 executives, only 20 percent were satisfied with their one-to-one sales and marketing approach.[iv]

There is no Easy Button but there’s still hope

So, let’s face the facts, take stock in what’s produced results, and endeavor to fix what hasn’t.  The stuff that’s worked has improved the lives of consumers and fueled business performance.

Progress made

Here’s what has worked:

  • Lead management systems are better. Many do a decent job capturing intent and getting leads faster to the right people.  When prospects engage in self-discovery on websites, CRM systems help identify where they came from, which pages they visited, offer chat assistance, and record where they bailed out or if they struggled.
  • B2B marketers, using account-based marketing (ABM) strategies, have managed to bring marketing and sales together more than ever before. When you study ABM, it’s hard to pinpoint if its owned by marketing or sales.  That’s good.  ABM pushes sales and marketing to jointly clean up contact databases.  It shines light on marketing and sales content, brings teams together to agree on taxonomies, forcing some house cleaning and sharing.
  • Channel data is (slightly) less trapped. For instance, customer service interactions via chat are more likely to be available to marketers because the data is usually captured by a more modern and open system.  This makes that data readily available to marketers as a feed into their customer data platform (CDP).
  • The proven benefits of marketing analytics are making their way into sales forecasting, scoring, engagement tactics, and overall CRM. For example, with next-best-offer proving its worth in marketing, the same approach now shows up in sales automation as next-best-sales-activity. In Rexer’s survey of 1,220 data science professionals shown in figure 1, the trend continues.  In 2015, eight of the top ten analytic goals were either marketing, sales, or CRM in nature.

Rexer Data Science Survey

Figure 1: Rexer Analytics 2015 Data Science Survey

There’s plenty of room for improvement

Marketing, sales, and service personnel must be aligned around the same customer-centric strategy, tactics, and metrics, especially as these evolve.

CRM strategy and systems should not be disjointed from marketing and sales.  Instead, we must endeavor to rationalize them. But too often, they are still treated as different and distinct, as shown below in figure 2.  In this view, the CDP institute claims there’s justification for yet another system of customer data (a CDP) by arguing marketers must have complete control of their data.

Martech Comparison Guide

Figure 1: Martech Comparison Guide

Notice four systems, just within the marketing function, for managing customer data.  Add in CRM, the data warehouse, sales automation, and at least one customer service system, and customers find their data dispersed across eight or more systems.

And therein lies the problem.  When vendors push these systems, and buyers buy them, it reinforces silos and fundamental separation of data and functions.  The result:  data, rules, analytics, and processes, already fragmented just splinter further.  And as such, customer experience suffers.  And how can they expect that data will be clean, shared, and consistently applied across customers’ journeys?  To illustrate this madness, consider the names of three of these systems:

  • Customer Data Management – mission is to manage customer data
  • Data Management Platform – mission is to manage customer data, and although the emphasis may be on customer data earlier in the journey, ultimately, it’s managing customer data
  • Customer Relationship Management – managing customer relationships, which of course means managing customer data

Just fix it

Build CRM on a solid foundation

There cannot be separate solutions for marketing, sales, and service if organizations are ever to realize the full benefits of a CRM strategy.   And there certainly can’t be separate customer data repositories across (and even within) functional areas.  It’s fine to have modules that contain different vendor technology.  But as a car has parts manufactured by different suppliers, there still must be one schematic for how they interoperate; and one entity responsible for the performance, functioning, and experience delivered to the customer; and one refined fuel not four variants.

And that system cannot be overly simplistic.  Getting CX right means solving complex customer engagement problems with sophisticated blueprints and tooling, not a Swiss Army knife. Differentiation comes from building a system of differentiation.   A well-known CRM strategist, Denis Pombriant, describes as a “Swiss Army knife technology stack that delivers analytics and machine learning to business processes.” [v]  That knife may be handy for simple punch list tasks around an already fully-functional CRM house, but don’t try to use it to construct and maintain the main structure.

Force interlock between marketing, sales, and service

Without organizational alignment, all the above falls by the wayside.  It’s still rare to find a business that has effectively unified all CRM functions, not just technologically, but more importantly culturally and organizationally.  Until CRM systems are fully autonomous (which isn’t happening anytime soon), people must help connect dots across functional boundaries.

Effective interlock starts with regular communications.   Ensure any CRM strategy is coupled with repeated functional interlocks that includes shared goals, agreed upon metrics, and ongoing assessment and adjustments.  That means marketing, sales, and service meeting and collaborating on a regular basis.  Imagine that!

Prove CRM can perform using STEM

Use science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to take CRM to its initially intended levels and beyond.  Using STEM works, but you must commit to it.  Using a data-driven approach, distill customer data, feed it into insight systems, and then bring intelligent and relevant recommendations, actions, and offers to customers’ doorsteps when they need them.  You’ll need the right resources, so don’t short change on hiring data science experts and building on a platform that has proven its ability to operationalize a variety of analytics.

With an advanced analytics engine that acts as a rational brain, CRM systems will make better decisions, improving CX and driving higher revenue and profit.  This brain must be fed contextual data in real-time, predict intent, calculate propensities on the fly, and render arbitrated next-best-actions in milliseconds, hundreds of millions of times a day.  This is not science fiction, as there are technologies capable of this now.

Using a system like this, marketers can, for instance, expect click-thru-rates on promotions to improve by as much as 600 percent.  Sales professionals can expect to see forecasts improve, pipeline grow, and the right deals close.  Service managers will experience reduced churn, proactive resolution of cases, and improved net promoter scores.


In the 25 years since its inception, CRM strategy has been applied by business with mixed results.  The vision was solid: use customer centrality as the core design principal to fuse functions, data, processes, and systems to drive improvements.  Do that, everyone thought, and great relationships and experiences will follow.  In 1990, there were no DMPs, CDPs, campaign management systems, and marketing clouds.  So, although CRM practitioners have made progress, other forces have been at work, strengthening silo walls and further fragmenting things.

Being customer centric doesn’t magically happen.  And it certainly doesn’t happen by buying eight different customer data management systems.  What’s required is alignment – deep data alignment, process, functional, platform, and organizational alliances sustained over years.  To achieve that kind of alignment, particularly in large organizations, it takes unwavering commitment and collaboration.   Executives, middle management, and individual contributors across marketing, sales, service, and operations, must all sing from the same CRM song sheet.

Say happy 25th birthday to CRM strategy!  It’s reached adulthood.  It survived the rocky years. That means lots of mistakes, and hopefully lots of learnings.  So now go out and change the CX world with the next generation of CRM strategy.

[i] The One to One Future: Building Relationships One Customer at a Time (Doubleday, 1993) with Martha Rogers, Ph.D. ISBN 978-0385485661

[ii] Infosys,, 2013

[iii] Zendesk,  rel=”nofollow”, November 2013

[iv] Bain Customer Experience Tools and Trends Survey, 2018

[v] CRM Buyer,, June 2018


  1. Lots of great stuff for a trip through memory lane. I want to focus on just one part in the conclusion: “Being customer centric doesn’t magically happen. And it certainly doesn’t happen by buying eight different customer data management systems. What’s required is alignment – deep data alignment, process, functional, platform, and organizational alliances sustained over years.” I completely agree that alignment is crucial. It has been my experience that the linchpin of organizational change that is sustainable is the commitment of leadership to creating and sustaining a culture that puts the customer at the center. To me that is more than alignment or all singing from the same song sheet–it is making customer-centricity as important as financial stability. To quote Peter Drucker: “The purpose of an organization is to create and retain a customer.” Such commitment is evidenced by what dominates the agenda of leader meetings, where leaders spend their time, what gets affirmed and rewarded, and the degree that leaders model the philosophy and practice they espouse. In the words of Sir Richard Branson, “”No matter how visionary, brilliant, and far-reaching a leader’s strategy might be, it can all come undone if it is not fully supported by a strong and spirited corporate culture.”

  2. Excellent summary though I’m surprised you were too modest to mention that Pega Infinity came out top in the Ovum Decision Matrix: Selecting a Customer Engagement Platform 2018/19

  3. Chip, thanks for reading this and for your insights. Couldn’t agree more! Executive support is crucial. They must not only talk a good talk, but walk the walk. It’s all about long-term value creation to sustain and grow any business, and there is only one entity that creates value for businesses, and that’s customers. As a customer of my writing (and one that stuck it out to get to the conclusion 🙂 …thanks again!


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