CRM systems seek simplicity

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CRM vendors are going back to the drawing board. Believing that the complexity of CRM applications has impeded their use, they are developing simpler user interfaces.

Recently, a particular focus has been on Web-based portals that can be tailored to each user. So-called CRM "dashboards," which represent multiple sets of data in one screen view, have begun to proliferate.

"The evolution of portal frameworks that sit on application suites is one major trend," said Michael Park, VP-global product marketing at SAP AG.

Park notes that a portal framework and CRM dashboards are not new. Two years ago, SAP acquired Top Tier, a portal technology company, in order to make headway in this emerging market. The latest version of mySAP CRM, which SAP will release officially on September 5 at their SAPPHIRE user conference in Lisbon, will be the vendor's first attempt to tie all company applications into a portal interface.

Moreover, a new feature in
mySAP will enable the creation of various "roles" for titles such as
VP of sales, head of human resources and customer service representative.

User interface overrated

But some users say a focus on the user interface is the wrong way to look at the challenge of CRM.

"A lot of people are building dashboards before building a chassis," said John Ounjian, CIO at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. "You have no chassis, there’s no framework."

The platform Ounjian created employs a mixture of technologies from Vitria Technology Inc., Kana Inc. and Aspect Communications Corp. Using a Web-based interface and Web data integration technologies, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota can automate business processes and help its call center marry and manage incoming information from online and phone contacts.

Fierce competition to simplify

The competition to build simpler interfaces is fierce.

In July, Epicentric Inc., a company that bills itself as a "scalable portal vendor," announced its portal product specifically for SAP. And E.piphany Inc. in March introduced its latest application suite, E.6, which offers a flexible, scalable dashboard interface.

Another CRM vendor featuring a role-based interface is Aprimo Inc., which in April launched its Marketing 5.0. What’s new is a way to give each user a customized view of what Aprimo calls "enterprise marketing management applications."

One interface helps

Making all customer data available from one interface has helped Marshall & Ilsley Corp., a commercial and retail bank in Milwaukee.

"It gives you that one view of the customer, and it helps you to understand how to market to them," said Mike Grundhoefer, assistant VP at Marshall and Ilsley.

The bank uses the P/CIS CRM database from Harte Hanks Inc. to manage customer information from several sources in one data repository. Marshall & Ilsley manages direct mail and telemarketing campaigns through its in-house ad agency for all its b-to-b clients.

The latest advance in the software, Grundhoefer said, is multi-channel preference capability. "If you know a customer only likes to be contacted by e-mail, that’s easily set up now," he said.

Lisa Arthur, VP-CRM and services marketing at Oracle Corp. said marketing executives still need access to "the real nuts and bolts technology components like database marketing modeling or analytics." The problem, she said, is that most users lack the ability to get at that information easily.

Oracle spent the last year incorporating all of its applications into a browser-based portal, Arthur said.

"The next iteration of that, Daily Business Intelligence, is coming in the next six months," she said. The tool will provide "up-to-the-minute" business information across the organization.

Arthur refers to this as "deeper analytics out of the box," with more role-based personalization by department. "In finance [for example], they’ll get a broader financial picture, while marketing will get a more finite set of data," she explained.

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