9 CRM trends for 2024 | CIO

Customer relationship management (CRM) has long been a mature, commoditized product category. An estimated 90% of companies with 10 or more employees already have at least one CRM system. And the major players in the CRM market are among the most established names in the industry — Salesforce, Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP.

But several key trends are shaking up the market for CRM systems, which encompass sales, marketing and customer service. First and foremost is generative AI, which has shaken up nearly every aspect of enterprise IT, but is having a profound impact on customer-facing applications.

On a more strategic level, CIOs are recognizing that the customer is king and CRM systems hold the keys to the kingdom. CRM has moved beyond being just a way to send out routine marketing emails and remind salespeople that it’s time to follow up with a customer. It is becoming instrumental in increasing revenue from existing customers and identifying new market opportunities for the business.

And a lot of that comes down to the vast amounts of customer data CRM systems contain and their capabilities for pulling insights from that data through AI and machine learning — functionality that is becoming increasingly vital for enterprises across nearly every industry.

From market shifts to IT strategies, here are the hot CRM trends for 2024.

Traditional machine learning and artificial intelligence, as well as the hot, new offshoot generative AI, which creates content in response to queries addressed to large language models, are transforming CRM in multiple ways.

Generative AI can take over what Liz Miller, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research, describes as “a lot of the mundane tasks that sales execs and marketing folks have really dreaded doing as part of the CRM process.” These include creating marketing materials or transcribing and summarizing customer calls.

More importantly, AI can take traditional business process automation (BPA) to the next level, automating repeatable processes and operational workflows, says Paul Greenberg, president of The 56 Group consultancy.

Another important application of ML/AI is data analytics. “That’s where we see the payoff from AI; truly doing what we always wanted CRM to do, uplevel those moments in time, develop deeper, more durable, profitable relationships with our customers,” Miller says.

AI-driven analytics enables salespeople, for example, to query the database in order to identify untapped markets. In the past, CRM dashboards contained historic data and trends that may or may not have been useful or actionable.

With AI, CRM systems can analyze vast amounts of data to deliver predictive analytics on business outcomes. It enables employees to “interrogate the data differently,” adds Forrester analyst Kate Leggett. “I get a little bit of a crystal ball.”

And the interactivity feature of generative AI creates a true digital copilot, enabling humans to “do what they do best, foster conversations, show empathy, and accelerate decision velocity,” says Miller.

Clint Oram, co-founder and chief strategy officer at CRM vendor SugarCRM, says generative AI will soon enable employees and customers to use natural language to engage with the most advanced AI systems. “Generative AI natural language processing will completely change the user interface,” he says,  estimating that it will take a year or two for CRM vendors such as his to implement voice-enabled generative AI.

In this scenario, a salesperson could log into the system and simply say, “Tell me something I don’t already know about my customer.” Or, “I’m in the middle of a complex process and I’m stuck. Tell me what to do next.” It would also enable customers to use natural language to describe their problem and submit a customer service request.

The increased verticalization of CRM is a key trend for 2024, says Forrester’s Leggett. CRM systems specifically tailored to industries such as financial services, healthcare, government, or consumer packaged goods are becoming extremely popular. Salesforce leads the way, offering a dozen industry CRMs, but all the major players are following suit.

The advantage of an industry-specific CRM is that it comes with prepackaged workflows, data models, and connectors to other applications, as well as a built-in compliance infrastructure for regulated industries. This enables organizations to get up and running quicky and to realize the benefits quickly, says Leggett.

“It allows companies big and small to compete on a more level playing field. In the old days, only behemoths had the resources to do custom development on CRM. Now, with industry CRMs, you can take those development resources and target them on areas of differentiation that make you stand apart from others. It’s huge,” says Leggett.

Industry CRM can also unlock the types of insights from organizational data silos that enable companies to spin up new divisions and move into new markets.

Many companies splurged on CRM licenses over the past few years and are now taking a step back to determine whether they’re getting their money’s worth, says Harry Datwani, a principal at Deloitte Digital.

He hears two common concerns from CIOs and CFOs: “I bought all these licenses and they’re sitting on the shelf. How do I get more value out of them.” Or, “We bought these CRM licenses but I’m not sure I’m saving my salespeople time, I’m not sure I’m making my marketing people more effective, I’m not sure I’m connecting marketing and sales data the way I thought I was going to.”

Datwani says companies are analyzing their CRM usage, identifying unused licenses, and measuring business outcomes against industry standards. In some cases, organizations can identify new use cases for CRM technology and transfer unused licenses so that additional business value is generated without adding new costs.

It’s not uncommon for a large enterprise to have CRMs from multiple vendors; the sales team using Salesforce, the marketing team on Hubspot, and the customer service group with Zendesk, for example.

“It’s terrifying,” says Constellation’s Miller, who describes the situation as “random acts of data.” The upshot is that the sales and marketing teams may have one view of a client, who might be on the phone complaining to the customer service rep about a problem with the product, and that information never gets shared.

Leggett adds that having a fragmented CRM infrastructure impacts the organizations in several key ways. First, it makes it harder to identify unused licenses and to automate processes. It also makes it harder for the organization to achieve that 360-degree view of the customer, which ultimately makes it more difficult for the company to deliver a differentiated experience to customers. Reducing the number of vendor platforms in the mix helps organizations “manage their revenue stream from first touch to recognizing revenue,” Leggett says.

One of the implications of having multiple CRMs is that data is scattered all over the place, which creates, as Miller puts it, “unintended horrifying complexity.” Miller adds, “For AI to be really fruitful, you need massive amounts of data. We need to wrap our arms around where are those unexpected pockets of really important data.”

Deloitte’s Datwani says clients he deals with are developing and implementing data consolidation strategies aimed at achieving a single view of the customer.

Some of the tactics include the adoption of content delivery platforms (CDPs), which aggregate and analyze data from internal CRM and ERP systems, as well as other sources such as emails, social media, loyalty programs, and so on. Organizations are also turning to third-party data storage and analytics platforms from vendors such as Informatica or Snowflake, with a goal of getting all data to work together seamlessly.

Organizations are also pushing to break CRM suites into components, so they only pay for what they’re using, says Forrester’s Leggett. For example, an organization may want the lead management, but not the forecasting feature of a CRM sales package.

Leggett says all of the CRM vendors are going along, citing Creatio as one of the leaders in the a la carte CRM trend.

The low-code, no-code movement is having a profound impact on CRM systems. In response to customer demand, CRM vendors have opened up their platforms, enabling business analysts to create custom workflows and custom experiences without having to involve the IT department, says Leggett.

“At the end of the day, CRM is about delivering great experiences to customers in a unique way that allows your brand to stand apart,” she says. “This gives the power to business analysts and business users to create these differentiated experiences.”

Leggett adds that organizations need to make sure that policies and guardrails are in place to make sure that these new applications are secure, compliant, and scalable.

CRM is about satisfying the customer, not turning them off, so organizations are becoming increasingly aware of the potential for bots or AI-based customer service apps to actually do harm to the trust relationship between the customer and the organization.

Deloitte’s Datwani points to contact center survey data showing that trust scores go down when the customer knows that they’re interacting with AI, rather than a human.

The question becomes, “How do I orchestrate that seller experience, that customer journey where I am taking advantage of data and the insight that comes with it, and still have client trust.”

For example, if a customer contacts their financial services firm to make a transaction and an automated system tries to upsell the customer, the reaction from the customer can be very negative, Datwani says. But if the customer is dealing with a human and a bot is making recommendations in the background, that seems to work better.

The answer, at least until humans become more accepting of interactions with AI systems, seems to be deploying AI in a support capacity, while maintaining human-to-human contact, Datwani says.

“CIOs are having this amazing time period of really being at the center of this transition, becoming a truly strategic voice in how generative AI gets rolled out,” says Constellation’s Miller. AI is changing the CIO’s role and responsibility within the organization, putting the CIO at the forefront of AI-driven digital transformation.

Forrester’s Leggett puts it into perspective: “Enterprises originally deployed CRM to provide operational efficiencies for sales, marketing, and customer service organizations. Today, CRM is experiencing a second wave of adoption aimed at transforming experiences. It is growing into a C-level business imperative.”

Neal Weinberg is a freelance technology writer and editor. He can be reached at neal_weinberg@foundryco.com.