The selfish genes

The widespread failure of early CRM projects taught technologists everywhere an important lesson: don't forget the people

Customer relationship management software isn't used to postive attention. Oversold, underperforming and capable of annoying thousands of people at once, the software commits technology's cardinal sin. It doesn't understand people.

Some people are hard to understand. As well as customer support and marketing. CRM has to cope with the sales force. A logical engineer would say that these people stand to benefit most from sharing information and pooling resources; to a salesman, the CRM system threatens to take their hard-won information and give it to their greatest competitors -- their colleagues. People don't like sharing.

This theme of humanity versus engineering ran through a talk this week by Rebecca Wettemann at the UK user conference of CRM provider RightNow Technologies. Wetterman, whose company specialises on helping companies realise return on investment from technology, invited delegates to hold up their pens and then swap them with an adjacent attendee without looking. Audience members were then asked if they wished to keep the pen they had been given, to which the resounding answer was no -- even for those people who had traded-up writing tools.

We don't trade what we have for things we don't know, even when that unknown is likely to help us all in the future. That's something that designers of utopian sales CRM applications have consistently failed to consider. Wettemann's solution to the sharing impasse was for management to effectively bribe CRM users to participate, or "incentivise" them to overcome their inner three-year old.

Things are getting better. Thanks to the aggressive marketing of companies such as hosted-application provider Salesforce.com, CRM is recovering. According to analyst IDC, the worldwide CRM market will grow 8.9 percent per year for the next four years – generating $11bn for vendors. This has as much to do with usability tuning following those earlier failures as it does customers embracing the idea of software as a service.

Groupware has a bigger task than does ordinary client software: while the latter needs usability insights into individuals, the former requires anthropology and sociology on top. No wonder it's been so hopeless.

Any company seeking to automate a group activity must understand first and implement second. Technology which ignores that will itself be ignored.

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