Portals are the future of customer relationship management, according to industry experts.

CRMGuru.com convened a panel on Tuesday entitled CRM: What’s Next? According to Rod Johnson, service director, customer management strategies at Boston-based AMR Research, the next step in customer relationship management (CRM) is an evolution and not a revolution. He said companies will continue to build on the Internet.

“Companies are going to need to build on the infrastructure they already have in place,” Johnson said. “We’re not going to go out and tear out the system we spent $1 million on.”

Historically, Johnson said, CRM was about employee-facing tools that are really geared towards driving efficiencies into the business.

“Today, the definition of a true CRM strategy should include all the aspects of leveraging the Internet. It should include other types of relations, not just customers, but partners as well, and certainly should bundle in all the traditional e-commerce capabilities that you might of thought of as separate projects in the past.”

And the focal point of all of this will be the portal.

“The portal I think becomes a critical technology for CRM strategies because this idea of getting all the information about a customer into one system for most companies will never, ever happen,” Johnson said.

“The portal is a very interesting integration technology because it enables you to integrate a lot of information to the (screen). I can see the billing information from an ERP or accounting system right next to customer service complaint.”

CEO and Founder of Bozeman, Mont.-based RightNow Technologies, a Web-based customer service solutions company, Greg Gianforte said there end-user applications as well. He said there are tremendous cost savings to be had by moving customers away from human-based help to online help.

“If we can shift them from the more expensive interactions, either voice or chat or e-mail, over to less expensive interactions on the Web, not only do we allow capacity to scale with demand, but we also significantly reduce our operating costs,” he said.

Gianforte added he sees portals tuning themselves to the needs of the users so when someone returns it knows you by name, knows the interactions you’ve had and “can actually be predictive about the information you’re going to be looking for.”

The panelists also examined the here and now of CRM. Gianforte said the key to getting the go ahead for an implementation isn’t how quickly it gets up and running but how soon you see the return on investment.

“If you can’t realign your internal processes, get the software installed and get return out of it then you haven’t done much,” he said.

Johnson said the key behind such projects is leadership from the CEO. All the vice-presidents, he said, think they own the customer and this has created conflicting metrics. CRM implementations cannot be solely based on what the chief financial officer wants to see, he said, and has post-implementation studies to back this up.

“People were placing as much, if not more, value on the intangible things like recognizing new markets . . . that we didn’t know existed (and) for the first time understanding customer purchasing patterns and how to manage those,” Johnson said.

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