CRM Evolution appears to focus on the topic of how CRM is evolving. But the conference name could just be “CRM,” at least according to speaker Art Hall, Director, Customer Solutions, at consulting firm Alvarez & Marsal.

On day one of CRM Evolution, taking place August 8-10 at the Hilton in New York, Hall delivered a case study of a large parks and recreation company that had a data challenge.

The client wanted to leverage its dispersed unstructured customer data. Additionally, the company needed to make its basic campaign management process more consistent. The company needed a more advanced way to do complex multi-channel campaign automation.

In his talk, “Select the Right CRM for Your Business,” Hall gave the story about his client, who had about ten CRM vendors, and talked about what that vetting process was like. Eventually, his client decided to go with no vendor. Instead, the company chose to clean up its customer data.

Mind the Timeline Gap

Hall made the statement that “vendors prey off of the ignorance of consumers.” According to Hall, marketing automation is the coin of the realm. Most companies are far behind the vendor’s product timeline.

In fact, Hall argues many companies don’t even call CRM, CRM. Hall gave me the example that the hospitality company Intercontinental Hotels defines CRM as “marketing automation.” Hall added that for companies such as Intercontinental, CRM is “a dirty little world.” Coca-Cola has been known to refer to CRM as “precision marketing.”

No matter what the brands call it, there’s a gap between the vendor innovation timeline and the timeline of most practitioners today. I’m sure both would agree (at least the honest ones).

Hall works in the trenches with many practitioners, and he wants his clients and all brands who are looking at customer engagement to better prepare themselves to think about strategy before any discussion of new technology comes into play.

Hall told me, “If you’re messaging against poor data, it makes your company look disjointed. Across a given database there are often multiple or bad records.” This is in line with a popular tweet from his talk “Address the Data Issue Before Deciding on a CRM System.”

It’s Ugly, But It’s True

While for some, database management is less than sexy, for practitioners it’s a true customer management quandary. The marriage among timing, relevance, strategy and technology appears to be an awkward one for most companies.

Many companies don’t identify risk, and as a result face failed technology implementations with vendors that jack up prices as the relationship ensues.

Hall told me, “You go through a selection process, and it’s important to proactively think about what could go wrong and how to address it.” One audience member shouted out, “It’s ugly, but it’s true” in response to Hall’s recommendation to be proactive in identifying CRM risk.

Another person who mentioned the challenge with platitudes was Social Media Today content curator Paul Simon, who wrote a wrap-up of day one of the conference. Simon quoted Joe Galvin, an independent B2B sales analyst, who said CRM Evolution had a “greater emphasis on customer service platitudes and less about the selling side of CRM.”

The selling side of CRM might as well be called Social CRM -- a track topic at the conference and area of discussion. Charlie Isaacs, Head of eServices and Social Media Strategy for technology vendor Alcatel-Lucent and speaker at the conference, told me via tweet, “CRM actually evolved from Social CRM, so we can eliminate Social CRM because CRM needs to be social to work. It’s redundant.”

Companies are generally interested in the notion of using social channels to sell. But they certainly don’t seem to grasp it yet. And yet another year of social CRM panels at CRM Evolution -- a good event overall with smart people -- tells me we don’t grasp it either, particularly because we are still debating its relevance, its definition and its name.

While many of us still find ourselves using platitudes and buzzwords, according to people like Hall, with regard to CRM, and particularly Social CRM, practitioners are “just not there yet.”

They are still struggling with their CRM efforts, let alone any discussion of social channels. The argument appears to be the lack of use cases, and people such as CRM Evolution speaker (and generally bright thinker) Brian Vellmure attributed this to lack of the readiness of use cases, not necessarily a complete lack of use cases.

And Vellmure is right -- there are attempts -- but many practice leaders don’t feel like sharing. Who wants to make themselves seemingly vulnerable in front of their competitors, customers and the crowd? But that appears to be what we have to do for any further discussion of social technologies. We need to hear from in the trenches. And as Aaron Cano, VP Marketing Planning, FreshDirect (the online grocer), told us today in his lunchtime talk on analytics, “Share the good, share the bad, share the ugly.”

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