CRM Specialists: Building Relationships

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In spite of its frequent use in the business world, “customer relationship management” (CRM) remains a somewhat nebulous concept. Broadly speaking, it refers to the administration of interactions between an organization and its customers. That definition, though, hardly elucidates any of the particulars in terms of strategies and objectives. And when it comes to the role IT professionals play in the development, implementation and maintenance of CRM solutions, it explains next to nothing.

Most people probably don’t realize exactly how many kinds of interactions they have with the businesses they patronize — they involve much more than just the point of sale. They are the ads they watch on TV and listen to on the radio, the top results of the research they do on a search engine, the review they read in the newspaper, the recommended purchases based on buying habits from “e-tailers,” the service they get from the support staff when something goes wrong with a product. CRM is all these things and more. And these CRM initiatives have required increasing levels of technical expertise to make them more sophisticated, interrelated and automated.

“If you took the broad pillars of CRM, those are strategy, process and technology, and in many organizations, you see a combination between process and technology,” said Bruce Culbert, managing director at BPT Partners, a CRM training, education and research organization, who also serves as a board member at Rutgers University’s CRM Research Center and as a authority. “Technology is usually procured to support automation or integration of key business processes. In that respect, they’re very much tied together. You usually see a combination of specialties in processes and technologies.”

There are many different kinds of individuals in the CRM sector, many of whom have little to no technology expertise to speak of. Then there are others who are masters of database, networking and Web technologies. If you imagine CRM as a linear spectrum that ranges from the highly conceptual strategic side to the highly technical systems and solutions side, it isn’t hard to see where most of the IT professionals are going to be. This is not to say, however, that more technical CRM specialists — the people this article primarily addresses — are completely immersed in IT. Most of them grasp to some degree the issues, challenges and skills of their colleagues on the strategic end because the technology serves those professionals.

“Technology always takes a back seat to the nontechnical skills in the CRM industry,” said Steven Yaskin, chief technology officer at Queplix, a software company that specializes in CRM implementations. “By ‘nontechnical,’ I mean ‘analytical skills.’ And by ‘analytical skills,’ I mean people who have the ability to learn the business. When we look at skills, a basic requirement for people is to be able to get inside the business infrastructure and learn how it operates very quickly. They have to learn the lay of the land, meaning how the objects propagate through the organization, how they empower internal users, how they communicate with customers. All those things have to be discovered and laid out in some form.”

Culbert agrees and said IT professionals sometimes struggle to see matters through a customer’s eyes. “It’s important that they understand those functional areas that they’re supporting,” he said. “It’s always been the challenge of IT to look at their various constituents and customers. With that customer mindset, you then understand a good bit of their business as you perform your service in support of their business. It would be difficult to be a technology specialist in CRM and not have a good communication skills and a good appreciation for the value of customer interactions and relationships.”

Building the Perfect CRM Specialist
Beyond understanding interactions with customers and communicating effectively, people going into CRM generally need to have a solid postsecondary educational background, although not necessarily in technology. Certainly, this field has its share of computer science graduates, but there are also professionals who have degrees in mathematics, business and even the fine arts.

“We have all kinds of people — it’s all over the place,” Yaskin said. “We try to have a lot of people with college degrees because they generally have a lot better understanding of things and better analytical skills. We have a lot of MBAs and business majors. A lot of people actually come from an arts background, which helps them with the personal aspects, the people skills. I actually have a master’s degree in numerical physics. That helps me greatly in trying to analyze the company and their CRM philosophy, and it also helps me understand the statistics I’m looking at.”

Additionally, a few universities such as Duke, Rutgers and Baylor have developed curricula around CRM, which provides individuals who want a career in the field with a specific, relevant academic path.

“Other schools have programs, but unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of them,” Culbert said. “We don’t have as many as we need. The industry’s huge, and you’d think there would be a lot more formal educational opportunities. At the same time, though, it’s a fast-moving target. It’s evolved a lot over the past 12 to 15 years.”

Certification programs are somewhat more prevalent. Culbert said technical CRM specialists have more development opportunities than their strategic counterparts because the solution providers frequently offer credentials that support their products. “All the major vendors of CRM technology usually offer significant training and education opportunities,” he said. “Some even offer certification on their product. Those individuals certified by the vendor would be required to have demonstrated some level of skill in set-up, configuration, use and support of a given product. The only challenge with these types of programs is that there is considerable variation in skill levels for individuals with the same technology certification. As an example, at a company such as BearingPoint, you could find an associate consultant and a managing director who are both Siebel Certified but utilize (their credentials) very differently.”

Also, many professionals have gained expertise in CRM suites from multiple vendors. This diversity reflects the multiplicity of products used in several organizations. “The CRM industry has been one of rapid technological advancements, and there have been some trade-offs between who was the market leader at one time or another,” Culbert said. “Also, there’s been a good deal of integration between solutions. On the other hand, there are some people who are so deep in, say, Oracle and its E-Business suite, and that’s all they do. That product is so complex that you can make a career out of it.”

In terms of work experience, an important characteristic of many successful CRM specialists is direct experience with the customer-facing aspect of the business they serve, Culbert said.

“If I’m a technology specialist, and I’m supporting the sales organization, understanding the sales processes is important,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I have to be a sales expert. I might start out in sales operations, but it wouldn’t necessarily be (as a salesperson). It might be in sales administration. Depending on the size of an organization, a single individual may be responsible for one or more of these specializations. In many organizations, you often find that the process and technology specialization are handled by the same people, particularly organizations with little or no formal IT organizations.”

In fact, most CRM specialists don’t start out in CRM but get introduced to this line of work because of a project or assignment that requires some involvement with customer interactions.

“Most of the people I know start w

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