"CRM is hot for the economy generally, and the next hot e-market," says Neil McMurchy, research director, enterprise applications at Gartner. "It's a major fashion item at the moment, set to secure huge growth rates, not least in Australia and Asia, where we are expecting a 100 per cent annual compound growth rate, albeit off a low base."
While CRM has been around for the past decade, McMurchy explains that the focus has essentially been an internal one aimed at getting costs down or giving value-added services. "Now, however, focusing on cost reduction merely keeps companies in the game, and even services have effectively become commodities. The only basis left today for both on and offline businesses to differentiate themselves is CRM."
According to Gartner however, - and indeed many CRM players - it's still a confused marketplace, which hasn't even sorted out the definition of CRM yet. According to McMurchy, many current large-scale CRM projects are likely to suffer the ERP syndrome of high costs, low satisfaction and a poor return on investment.
Protagona is the new wholly owned Australian subsidiary of UK-based Recognition Systems, which is a provider of integrated CRM solutions and fourth on Fortune magazine's list of the "25 brightest stars of Europe's new markets". Says Protagona's Richard Valentine, director of business solutions for Australia/New Zealand: "We don't believe that any one company operating in the new economy can provide a total CRM solution.
"But while there are many out there trying to do just that, they are fast losing ground when it comes to attracting, engaging and retaining valuable customers. They have no more time to wait and need to start implementing CRM solutions now."
To this end, Valentine believes that the Protagona product - a customer experience and campaign management software solution that provides a fully integrated suite of applications with a common user interface to enable marketers to execute a broad range of activities - is a good starting point.
"The product's key differentiator is that it integrates all of a company's marketing touch points and creates individualised marketing campaigns that can be immediately tailored and delivered to each customer at the point of contact, and can be implemented in around 45 days," says Valentine. "It is complementary to other CRM offerings, such as products that focus on sales force automation and call centres, and it also collates information that enables marketers to devise future, relevant campaigns for each customer, for an optimised customer experience and for increased customer loyalty."
But, perhaps most important, it is attempting to be one step ahead of the CRM game by offering the next generation of CRM "experience management", involving a level of interaction that was previously unavailable to marketers, according to Valentine. "Not only does it personalise messages to the level of the individual, but it responds to feedback and makes real-time adjustments," he says, adding that it even predicts what a person will want in future. To date, the company has secured two substantial sales in the Asia-Pacific region: a major Australian beverage firm that does not want to be named, and the Standard Chartered Bank in Hong Kong.
If challenges abound in the CRM marketplace, then so too do opportunities, not least of all for companies wanting to forge key partnerships. Protagona, for one, which already has a strong relationship with inter-enterprise software solution provider SAP in Europe and the US, is now hunting for local partners, from technology vendors with complementary product sets to consultants, VARs and systems integrators.
Impiric's managing director, Peter Horovitz, agrees. "The e-world is changing the ability for CRM to deliver truly customised messages to individuals or groups of individuals. This may bring great challenges, but the opportunities far outweigh these. As long as you keep the customer as your reason for being you will survive. It's not so much about technology but about driving profitable customer relationships. The key is to take a customer-centric view, and to do this you need strong consultancy skills, a good strategy and approach, and robust back-end support."
With this in mind, Impiric (formerly Wunderman Cato Johnson) has just announced a new strategic direction with its name change. "Impiric's point of difference is its ability to now give clients an unprecedented combination of people, processes and technologies to ensure companies secure and retain the most profitable customers," says Horovitz. "The global marketplace has fundamentally changed. Technology has shifted the balance of power, and the customer is in control. We believe that Impiric is the first of a new breed of professional services firms that encompass all elements of the marketing mix for its clients, bringing insight, imagination and impact to the equation.
"For traditional CRM agencies, the focus has been on a strategic level or a technological level. Impiric, however, works in partnership with clients on a much deeper level, starting from the customer level, and always maintaining an in-market, customer-centric perspective. This means employing people with data, analytical and consultative skills."
Andrew Isles, CEO of eVentures Holdings, says that, with data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics predicting that the number of Australian businesses conducting e-commerce will grow 500 per cent from around 8000 in 1999 to 40,000 by mid-2000, no Australian business can afford to ignore the vital importance of e-marketing. "It's an essential tool for building and refining customer relationships, growing customer numbers, and increasing revenue," says Isles, who recently signed letters of intent with leading American e-messaging company MessageMedia to establish an Australian operation. "This is especially true as businesses begin to use mobile phones and wireless devices to deliver important sales messages.
"Increasingly," he says, "companies are competing with each other based on direct customer relationships and personalised marketing services. The marketing potential of using e-mail to develop personalised customer relationships via carefully targeted one-to-one permission-based e-messaging is enormous. In essence, MessageMedia is that piece of the e-commerce puzzle missing for so many companies looking to make the net a truly successful and customer-rewarding distribution channel."
Meanwhile, StayinFront has also introduced its new CRM offering, designed to offer businesses a rapid and inexpensive means of implementing a highly flexible system to deliver customer information wherever it is needed in an organisation, regardless of the systems currently installed. "CRM systems are delivering powerful benefits to businesses by gathering extensive knowledge of their customers and compiling comprehensive databases containing that information," says StayinFront chief technical officer Tony Bullen.
"However, a major problem facing many organisations has been how to make the customer information available to users throughout the business who are using a wide variety of diverse systems. To this end, our product delivers a highly relevant flexible system that can be deployed quickly, inexpensively and without disrupting a company's business processes. And, on an ongoing basis, cost of ownership will be significantly lower than competing CRM systems because the unique architecture permits the system to be easily modified to meet changing business requirements."
While Gartner has predicted that the CRM focus will shift from call centres to an emphasis on sales, marketing and channels, 75 per cent of CRM projects are currently call centres or CTI.
"Online shoppers still want to speak in real time to live salespeople," says Robert Davies, managing director of Mentis Technologies, which recently launched its Call-Please Internet callback service. "NFO Interactive has found that nearly 35 per cent of the 2300 online shoppers responding to their weekly online Net.query said they would buy more if they could interact in real time with a salesperson from an e-commerce site. This was confirmed by a recent Andersen Consulting survey of 25 top e-commerce sites, which discovered that 62 per cent of shoppers never complete their purchases, due to a lack of real-time customer service.
"The data is in," he says. "Companies need to respond to this message and find better ways of dealing with their customers online. The Call-Please service, which allows online customers and visitors of a Web site the opportunity to request an instant, free, automatic callback from a representative of the company with the click of a button, makes this simple and cost-effective. You don't need any new hardware or software, and the implementation time is a matter of hours, rather than weeks or months."