The Future Of How Businesses Connect With Customers

What's the biggest software business nobody seems to talk about?

The numbers suggest it's customer-relationship management, the suite of software tools businesses use to track sales prospects, customers, and marketing campaigns.

And the vast majority of businesses aren't using sophisticated software from Salesforce, Oracle, or Microsoft. They're stuck using email, contact managers, spreadsheets—maybe even paper and pencil.

Software For The 99%

It's not that no one's buying CRM software. Far from it. In June, Gartner upped its 2017 market forecast for customer-relationship management, or CRM, to $37 billion, up sharply from $21 billion this year. That would make CRM software the biggest corporate software market, larger even than enterprise resource planning (ERP).

Gartner's optimism is warranted. The way businesses connect to customers is changing at warp speed. The added dimensions of social media and big data offer rich data hooks to any customer database.

More importantly, the market is underpenetrated. IDC estimates that there are some 1.1 billion mobile workers globally, or 35% of the workforce, which implies a global workforce of 3.4 billion (PDF). Yet according to SugarCRM, one of many vendors making CRM tools, only 15 million people use any type of software designed to manage those relationships. That amounts to a workforce penetration of just 0.5%.

And there are more than 225 million global businesses, according to the venerable Dun & Bradstreet database. Virtually all of them have customers—otherwise they wouldn't have much of a business.

Yet Salesforce.com, widely considered a CRM leader, has an installed base of just 100,000 customers, according to Gartner Group. While that figure includes some of the world's largest corporations, it represents less than 0.004% of D&B's global commercial database. By the most optimistic numbers, less than 1% of the global workforce uses CRM tools.

Why We Haven't Automated Our Customer Relationships

One explanation for low use is that implementing a CRM system is a major challenge, particularly for smaller organizations that don't have dedicated IT team. Fact is, most CRM software is difficult to use, especially in the areas of system integration and reporting.

Forrester notes that about half of 556 large organizations it surveyed (PDF) have implemented a CRM solution for marketing, sales, or customer-service applications. An additional 23% plan to use a CRM solution within the next 12 to 24 months.

That means that even among large enterprises, the very market most CRM vendors target, the glass is half empty. ReadWrite summarized the failings of the CRM industry succinctly: In the span of 10 years, $75 billion was spent on CRM software, according to Gartner. But during that period, customer satisfaction rose just 3-5%.

Fast-moving market trends, however, may help reshape the CRM landscape. Forrester identifies three phenomena that are reinvigorating CRM:

  • Mobile—The U.S. has the highest percentage of mobile workers in its workforce, with 72% of the U.S. workforce being mobile as of 2008. Yet Forrester found that "despite the growing maturity of mobile CRM solutions, business and IT leaders remained perplexed by the complexities of the different mobile options and architectures."
  • Cloud—It should be no surprise that given the large influx of smartphone and tablet users, many of whom adhere to the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) trend, cloud data syncing has become essential.
  • Social media—The influx of social-media-generated customer intelligence has resulted in a never-ending river of data, leading many organizations to show a growing interest in social media integration and big-data applications.

How are next-wave CRM tools tackling this potential opportunity? I looked at three relatively new contenders: Base CRM, Contactually, and Intuit's QuickBase. Each is trying to solve the complexity challenge in its own way.

Base CRM

Base CRM, which debuted as PipeJump, introduced an iPhone and Android app in January 2012, and relaunched its Web-based solution in late June. The company has received a total of $7.9 million in venture-capital funding.

A Base CRM enterprise solution starts at $15/mo., which includes no Base branding, unlimited deals and third-party integrations, like Dropbox and Mailchimp, plus 2GB storage. For $45/mo. per user, you also get sales goals and forecasting, plus task automation and 5GB of storage.

As Base CRM CEO Uzi Shmilovici tells me, the company is aware that CRM systems' lack of adoption is due to the fact that users face an "intense effort" to maintain their contact lists, so the company wants to reduce input by automating the process as much as possible. To enable that effort, Base has 90 employees today, with 71 focused on product development. Shmilovici says the company's development efforts have resulted in many positive reviews and top rankings in Google and Apple's app stores.

Base CRM certainly appears to have taken the lead in ease of use. The program boasts a number of nicely integrated features, including web calling, e-mail synchronization, plus sales pipeline and funnel analysis.

Another welcome feature is a Chrome extension that grabs LinkedIn contact information and adds it to your contact list.

Contactually

A different approach to easing contact entry comes from Contactually, a Web-based CRM application. It simplifies contact categorization by turning the chore into a quasi-entertaining "bucket game."

The program syncs with your IMAP email account, a nice feature that helps users build a contact list dynamically without having to import an address book (although it does that too). Another benefit of email syncing is that Contactually can "nag" you to recontact people you've been in touch with in the past.

Contactually also will find duplicate contacts that use different email addresses, allowing you to quickly merge them. But the best new feature may well be "Introductions," which makes introducing two people in your network quick and easy. In this day and age of high-octane networking, that's a big time-saver.

A Contactually Small Business account costs $40/mo. per user. Unfortunately, the Introductions feature is not available on the lower cost $20/mo. Premium plan.

Intuit QuickBase

While Base CRM and Contactually take a dynamic interface approach, Intuit's QuickBase goes in the opposite direction with a more traditional spreadsheet-like grid layout in every module of the application. QuickBase includes all the usual components, contact management, project management and sales management.

The design is pretty straightforward but its four top navigation menus can look quite intimidating at first. QuickBase also lacks special social-media features, dedicated import filters, and MailChimp integration. While there's no email synchronization, you can at least send emails from QuickBase, but that's a pretty basic function.

Unfortunately, QuickBase has a high cost of entry with pricing starting at $299/mo. for up to 10 users. QuickBase's conservative user interface is likely to appeal to people familiar with Salesforce.com, as the design metaphor is quite similar.

The Next Big Opportunity

There is no question that CRM tools are getting more adept at social networking while improving ease of use across all platforms. Yet I would still like to see a tighter integration, particularly with LinkedIn. Nimble, for example, lets users send messages directly to social media followers. 

Given the massive opportunity of equipping millions of businesses with tools they need to better service customers, easier-to-use CRM applications will proliferate and that's a relationship any business or customer should welcome with open arms.

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