A Customer Relationship Management (CRM) Software & Social CRM Blog

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This online forum shares experiences, lessons and learning about selection, implementation and continuous improvement of Customer Relationship Management software (CRM) systems, Social CRM (SCRM), Sales Force Automation (SFA) systems, Marketing & Lead Management systems, and Customer Service applications.






CRM Software User Interfaces Impacted By Social CRM

The Evolution From Software-Oriented to User-Oriented Interfaces

An often-repeated piece of advice given to CRM software decision makers is that it's key to pick a system that works the way your staff work. In other words, imposing a CRM software system on employees that requires them to alter their processes – especially processes which are effective – is a bad idea that can destroy CRM user adoption.

Despite that advice, CRM users have spent the last two decades viewing user interfaces (UIs) that require them to mold their ways of working around the way information is displayed and transaction navigation is sequenced. In recognition of this companies like and Microsoft with its Dynamics CRM have taken progressive measures to incorporate as much functionality as possible in UIs that are familiar to users – the social media-like interface that resembles eBay or Amazon and the Microsoft CRM interface which is built with an Outlook and Office theme.

These UIs still require users to mold their approach to work around those applications' layouts and structure. But as an increasing number of roles within businesses are being asked to use and update CRM data, and reliance on a single-display UI often forces users to view data in a manner dictated by the application.

But a new generation of CRM user interfaces is arriving. These UI's are customizable by the user without need for assistance by a system administrator or the IT department, allowing users in different roles to be presented with the data most critical to their jobs while still drawing from the same shared data set as everyone else in the organization. Sales staff can view sales figures and lead contact information, marketers can look at leads and campaign performance, service staff can view customer histories and open service tickets – and, if there's a need to look at data outside their normal roles, they can see the data usually associated with other roles in the company via a simple link or drill-down view.

This type of advancement reflects an irony of Customer Relationship Management software: it's an expression of CRM vendors actually considering and listening to their customers. The early issues with CRM UIs are understandable and stem from the technical roots of CRM applications. When Siebel CRM took the CRM industry by storm, its first iteration included a set of tables and input forms specifically for sales force activity. The UI was tightly bound to the database development kit, so the UI was attuned to what the platform technology dictated rather than the requirements of any particular user or role.

"In many regards, the alignment between the user interface and the platform that delivers it is still in place today," said Patrick Stapleton, an Australian UI expert who's worked with Oracle to help improve its CRM software interfaces. "Analysis of major CRM vendors shows almost identical information architectures. This binding of the software architecture and the UI is illustrated by the fact that as CRM has matured, the number of objects managed has increased, and so in turn has the number of menu items, or tabs. Currently, the number of tabs is so large that all three applications utilize tab extension widgets."

"Perhaps the worst example was Microsoft CRM 1.0," according to Richard Bordman, a U.K.-based CRM software consultant. "I do not know how it was designed, but my best guess was there wasn't much input from users. They have improved [the CRM software] significantly over the years, but there are still usability quirks which I suspect result from some pretty poor initial design decisions."

In recent years, CRM vendors have taken steps to move toward a more user-friendly and user-modifiable interface. In 2008, for example, Sage released SalesLogix 7.5, which introduced a new user interface that empowered users to make changes to the way the toolbar displayed and behaved and to simplify their views as they navigated through the CRM system. It also integrated mashup capabilities to share data from other web applications like LinkedIn and Google Maps, permitting users to enhance internal data from the corporate data set with external data to further customize the display and availability of information.

While SalesLogix is in large part targeted at the sales force, others roles within the company – marketing, service, and increasingly many roles often viewed as back-office positions – are increasingly dependent on CRM data. Permitting them to view this data in a context that makes sense for them is a trend that could have big implications.

"It can be very helpful to have different views of the system for different users," Bordman commented. "For example, I'm working on a pan-European deployment of a CRM system at the moment. The business processes are a slightly different for country. The user in Germany does not want or need to see all the fields being captured by the user in France, for example, so you need to construct different views for each team. In another example we are working with a professional services company that has a couple of business units which have different business models and sales processes from the rest of the company. If you have all the fields being tracked by all units in a single view, it would become too cluttered and confusing for users, so again we have to look at how we create different views for different teams."

There's another side to this coin, though. "Too much personalization and the costs of developing and maintaining the CRM system can quickly outweigh the returns," advises Bordman. Many times reaching a middle ground is not easy, but it's what some CRM software customers need.

The current era of CRM UIs which tell users what to do, boxes them in, and pushes data at them is about to be replaced. The UI must adapt to the user – not force the user to change for the UI. Fortunately, tools have made significant penetration in the social media world, as well as relatively new technologies such as HTML 5, are empowering software engineers with new capabilities.

This new user experience paradigm – letting the UI adapt to fit the role of the employee, and at the employee's own pace – is likely to become more common, said Stapleton. "For example, you may want to provide a completely different screen or workspace for a user who is managing incoming customer calls versus that of a sales rep who is calling customers. Both may be working with the same data set, but the workflow may dictate a completely different screen design. In the case where a user flips from one role to the other then both screens or work spaces would need to be supported within the same application with a simple navigation device to enable the user to change between the two."

It's clear that an old-school interface can not only inhibit user adoption, but it can dampen enthusiasm for a CRM application over time as well as degrade labor productivity. A new generation of CRM user interfaces will be key in helping advance CRM penetration. But what form next-generation UIs take will depend on the imagination of the UI designers and feedback they get from customers. "There is a huge opportunity for change," said Bordman. For many users, "the fundamental shift from a software architecture-driven interface to that of a user-driven interface paradigm has yet to occur."

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