Good-Bye Yellow Brick Road: CRM’s Fairytale Start Fades Into a Pragmatic Finish


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It’s over, folks. It ended not with a bang but a whimper. That brilliant shooting star we called “CRM,” which burst upon our horizon in the early 1990s, gradually burned up in the chilling business atmosphere and descended to Earth—to end its short life, or start its new life, as a mere business strategy. How ignominious.

Just think back to the glory days—to how grand was this fantasy world. There was the CRM community, the toast of the business world, marching thousands strong into DCI’s mega conferences, surrounded by omnipresent visages of Tom Siebel paternally smiling down on attendees from every flat surface available. Hell, only dictators of oppressed countries are so in love with their likeness. But then, this may not be such a bad analogy.

For as free and unfettered as CRMers felt, all along, the nascent CRM movement was operating under the thumb of an oligarchy, a small number of large software players; plus a small number of large consulting firms with back door ties to these software companies; plus a small number of large conference companies whose shows were deeply subsidized by these very same software companies. Despite competing with each other on one level, collectively they called the shots. They ran the show. They defined CRM.

And where was the free press—the Doberman pincer that should detect such goings on? With the exception of this web site and a handful of others, the media was sucking up to the industry oligarchs to stimulate as much ad spending as possible. Not ever questioning industry claims that this shooting star was a second sun that would light the way for all of business.

But largely unaware of which was doing what to whom, CRMers jammed the conference exhibit floors and packed the “educational” sessions, most of which turned into commercials, breathing each others’ fumes, inebriated by self-importance and the smell of riches to be made. Riches to be made by marketers and sellers cozying up to end customers to achieve customer intimacy (which I always took to mean putting both hands in customers pockets); by consulting companies conveniently recommending to these marketers and sellers the very software in which they as “objective” consultants were trained to recommend and install (and, in some cases, for which they were financially rewarded); by software sellers abusing software buyers again by persuading them to invest in overpriced, ridiculously over-featured applications; and even by supposedly independent research companies taking software company money to report glowing customer satisfaction scores for applications most intended users quickly turned into shelfware.

A fantasy world? Yeah, a triple-X rated fantasy world.

So what’s there to really miss, now that the hoopla is gone?

Not much, really. Especially given that we had a little cushioning before the fall. The economic downturn of 2001 acted like thick clouds, blocking the shooting star from sight. True, lots of believers waited anxiously for the clouds to part. So the fun could resume. But when the clouds parted, all that was left was a dying ember. Nothing to re-ignite the movement. Nothing for the industry cabal could get rich over.

Now, the big software companies, those still standing, are being cannibalized left and right. The big consulting companies have left for greener fields, where the pickins and profits are easier. The big conference companies were left for dead by the recession, and their grand CRM shows, including DCI’s, fought their last stand from behind card tables and from closets. The advertising-driven trade pubs are a shadow of their former selves, what with fewer and fewer advertisers to pack their pages. Heck, even many of the companies that paid the tab for the overpriced software and compromised consulting that was supposed to enable them to capture the hearts, minds and wallets of customers are waving the white flag, complaining that CRM turned out to be too much work.

So—is there anything left?

Yup. CRM. CRM—minus most of the overdone, half-baked software and stripped of virtually all the trappings and accoutrements. Unvarnished CRM, the stuff that sets up a value exchange between buyers and sellers helping each side get more of what they want. This is not the stuff you sell on expo show floors. It doesn’t require a gazillion dollars of consulting money to design and implement—at least not enough to attract a global firm with seven layers of consultants to support. In fact, CRM implementers can’t buy CRM. They can achieve it only through putting customers at the center of their business circle; redesigning business process to express the customer-centric way of doing business; supporting process with just the right amount and type of technology; and by having the guts to undergo organizational change.

But this is hard work—nothing resembling what all the original hoopla was about. So no wonder the shooting star could burn itself down to just a flicker without affecting CRM. Real CRM.


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