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The History of CRM

Written by:

Sean McAlindin, a business and arts writer, has a decade-long experience in music and culture journalism and recently ventured into business writing.

Edited by:

Sallie, holding a Ph.D. from Walden University, is an experienced writing coach and editor with a background in marketing. She has served roles in corporate communications and taught at institutions like the University of Florida.

The History of CRM

The History of CRM

While some version of customer relationship management (CRM) has always existed, the integrative, AI-powered software we know today actually developed through decades of evolution. 

Over the years, CRM has undergone significant improvements to meet and adapt to changing customer expectations, technological advancements, and expanding business needs. However, its core principles are really still the same. 

Then, as now, CRM’s No. 1 job is to organize customer contact information to inform sales strategy. 

In today’s business landscape, CRM software has become the essential tool for businesses to effectively manage customer interactions, build relationships, and drive growth. 

In this article, we will revisit the past to look at why and how CRM evolved so that we can clarify its role in a rapidly developing business and technology landscape. Our goal is to provide a comprehensive guide presenting a historical overview of CRM; one that explores its origins, development, and the most significant milestones it has achieved throughout its evolution.

Key Takeaways

  • As the marketplace has changed, CRM has adapted to maximize its impact and ability to manage all aspects of the customer experience.

  • CRM systems saw major progression throughout the 90, 2000s, and 2010s to keep pace with a rapidly changing technological landscape.

  • With the introduction of AI, CRM is evolving more rapidly than ever before, and providing businesses cutting-edge tools to navigate and meet the needs of the modern marketplace.

Introduction – The Essential Sales Questions

As a salesperson, there are three basic questions you need answers to before making that sale, and these are: who, where, and what?

Who is the customer? Where can we reach them? And what do they need?

Once you answer the first three questions, then you can ask yourself “when” and “why?”

“When” is typically going to be as soon as possible.

And “why?” Well, “why” is what you need to find out. If you can answer “why,” then you’ve already made that sale because you’ve given the customer a personal reason to buy your product. 

Essentially, CRM keeps track of who, where, what, when, and why, so you can answer the question on every salesperson’s mind: how?

As in: how am I going to make my next sale? 

Predecessors to CRM

Trade and Sales on the Ancient Silk Road

Imagine it’s 2000 years ago. You’re a trader on the Silk Road, a route used by salespeople in ancient times to link China with the West, establishing a flow of ideas and goods between Rome and Asia. How would you prepare for your trip? 

If you or someone you know had done it before, you’d probably try to recall what you sold in the past, to whom, and how much they bought. You’d plan to stop at your established customers first because you could count on them to purchase a reliable amount of goods each time. 

A fundamental tenet of sales theory is that it’s almost always easier to sell to an existing customer than to find a new one. For this reason, we keep our customers’ information on file to periodically reach out to them about future needs. 

Ancient Practices of Record-Keeping and Data Analysis

Accounting records carved into rocks dating back 7000 years have been found in Mesopotamia. That means record-keeping and data analysis are not new to business. The tools have just evolved over time.

The Advent of Handwritten Ledgers and the Rolodex

For centuries, what would now be considered CRM was simply contained in handwritten ledgers. Traveling salespeople kept extensive records of their contacts to follow up on their prospects. Many carried books full of contacts or left lists in a shoebox, desk drawer, or special corner of their office. 

The first modern breakthrough in these analog customer tracking systems was the Rolodex in 1956.

A rotating filing desk tool invented by Danish engineer Hildaur Neilsen, a Rolodex, (for those of you who aren’t as old as me) houses a collection of index and business cards people can spin and flip through. In its heyday, this “rolling index” was such a standard sales tool that the phrase “having a big Rolodex” translated to having many professional contacts.

While this was really just a clever and handy twist on old technology, it came about around the same time that a major digital invention was about to push the development of CRM to new heights: the computer. 

The Dawn of Computer-Based Customer Data Management

The first mainframe computer, built by IBM and Harvard researcher Howard Aiken, was operational by 1943. It weighed five tons, filled an entire room, and cost about $200,000 to build – which is over $3 million in today’s dollars. Its computing power was lower than that of the typical school calculator, and its computational and functional abilities would be completely blown away by any smartphone today.

By the 50s, leading companies began using computers to store customer information. The Z4 designed by German engineer Konrad Zuse was one of the first commercially available digital computers. It enjoyed brief notoriety, but never became widespread, thanks to the enormously impractical size. 

Early Adoption and Limitations of Digital CRM Systems

Nevertheless, by the 60s, forward-looking companies eagerly moved on from analog database files to computers to digitize customer information, including names, addresses, and contact details.

The early systems which laid the foundation for CRM aimed to centralize customer data and streamline basic customer management processes in one location. However, they lacked the comprehensive features and capabilities that now come with modern CRM solutions. 

While these rudimentary CRM tools improved on the analog Rolodex in many ways, they still had severe limitations. For starters, computers took up most of a room. To access them, users had to log into a terminal that consisted of a monitor, keyboard, and wired connection to the mainframe. This inevitably meant they had to be on-site to provide access to the database while salespeople were on the phone or going door to door.

In addition, contact information has always been a valuable resource and is often the key to a salesperson’s success. Sales reps knew that once they entered information into the database, it became company property. 

Resistance to the Transition from Analog to Digital CRM

Understandably, many salespeople who’d spent years, or even decades, developing their customer portfolio weren’t always willing to turn this hard-earned information over to a company that didn’t necessarily have any loyalty to them. As a result, analog systems remained popular even as computers advanced through the decades. 

Early CRM Systems

Advent of Practical Personal Computing

The true beginnings of CRM as we know it didn’t really start until the 1980s. 

For the first time in history, advancements in the manufacturing and engineering of digital components, including microprocessors, enabled computers to be built in a size that made it practical for ordinary people to have one in their homes. Early adopters eagerly bought the Sinclair ZX80 and the Texas Instruments TI 99/4. In 1982, the famous Commodore 64 came with its 64K of RAM and actual graphics capability, and consumers ate it up.

We also saw the advent of Microsoft Windows, Lotus, Paradox, and a wide range of software intended for both home and business use, making the computer a practical tool for a wide range of people and companies.

Pioneering Database Marketing: Robert and Kate Kestnbaum

Around the same time, Robert and Kate Kestnbaum pioneered the concept of database marketing. This was the first form of direct marketing that analyzed the customer database statistically to identify which customers would be most likely to react to a marketing campaign.

The idea took off. Kestnbaum, together with Robert Shaw, created some of the original CRM tools and methodologies that we still use today, from “customer lifetime value” to “channel management.” 

Emergence of ACT!: The First Sales Process Management Software

Meanwhile, down in Texas, Pat Sullivan and Mike Muhney, were building a product called ACT! The acronym originally stood for Activity Control Technology, but was later changed to Automated Contact Tracking. Released in 1987, it was the first piece of software designed to manage sales processes and customer engagements from a computer.

Evolution of Early CRM to Contact Management Systems (CMS)

As the concept of database marketing gained traction, organizations started recognizing the importance of leveraging customer data for targeted marketing efforts. Early CRM systems, referred to as Contact Management Systems (CMS), emerged to consolidate customer information and assist sales teams to manage customer interactions more efficiently. However, these systems still had limited functionality.

The Tech Revolution

The Rise of Sales Force Automation (SFA)

In the 1990s, CRM took a significant leap forward with the introduction of sales force automation (SFA). SFA systems expanded on the functionalities of CMS by incorporating opportunity tracking, pipeline management, and forecasting capabilities. 

The focus shifted from contact management to streamlining the sales process and improving efficiency. SFA systems also introduced the concept of customer lifecycle management, emphasizing the importance of nurturing customer relationships beyond the initial sale and through the entire customer journey. 

Siebel Systems: The Pioneer of Sales Force Automation

One of the early products came from a technology wunderkind, Tom Siebel, who left Oracle to form Siebel to sell his solution. In 1993, Siebel founded Siebel Systems, which initially offered sales automation tools, and later expanded to develop marketing automation and customer service applications. Siebel Systems soon became the market leader and most popular sales force automation system provider at that time.

The Internet and the Transformation of CRM

By the mid-90s, personal computers were mainstream at home and work. The Internet’s birth in the 1960s as an academic research project had turned into a global commercial network. Being able to access business information online enabled sales reps (especially B2B sellers) to research companies and contacts before they even spoke to them.

As a result, the market for digital customer databases skyrocketed into product offers of all shapes and sizes. Now known as CRM systems, this banquet of choices catered to customers of all types, although ongoing business acquisitions made it hard to know exactly who your vendor would be in a year’s time.

Integration of Marketing Automation and Customer Service

In the late 1990s, CRM providers started incorporating marketing automation and customer service integration into their systems.

Marketing automation equipped organizations to automate and personalize marketing campaigns, track customer responses, and measure campaign effectiveness. Customer service integration allowed companies to provide consistent and personalized customer experiences across various touchpoints, leading to increased customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Shift towards Relationship Building and Customer-Centric Strategies

At the time, the focus of CRM also shifted from transactional processes to relationship building and customer-centric strategies. This shift was driven by the recognition that nurturing long-term customer relationships was crucial for sustainable growth. 

CRM systems evolved to incorporate analytics and data-driven insights, and emphasized the importance of personalized engagement and customer satisfaction. These advancements gave organizations the ability to better understand customer behavior, preferences, and needs. 

Disruption in CRM Industry: Introduction of Mobile CRM

Then, in 1999, there were two major disruptions to the CRM industry.

First, mobile CRM hit the market from companies such as Siebel with its “Siebel Sales Handheld.” The device, running on Windows, allowed users to exchange and sync customer information through the Siebel Sales Enterprise data, thereby keeping team members up-to-date with all customer interactions no matter where they were located. Oracle, SAP, and PeopleSoft jumped on the trend and also released their own mobile versions.

BlackBerry and the Revolution of Mobile Communication

BlackBerry was a popular handheld device that resembled a primitive smartphone, but did not possess the superior technology of modern devices. The user interface was less intuitive than smartphones, touchscreens were still a thing of the future, and entries had to be made via a tiny connected keyboard. 

Despite this, BlackBerry revolutionized the way salespeople and others could communicate on the go. By providing access to the internet, BlackBerry enabled salespeople to send emails, text messages, and make phone calls using the same device. The industry shifted from using traditional desktops or laptops when to having 24/7, multichannel connectivity.

Impact of Mobile CRM Applications on Sales Teams

Mobile CRM applications empowered sales teams and field representatives to access critical customer data, update information in real time, and collaborate seamlessly with their colleagues. It extended the reach and capabilities of CRM systems, enabling organizations to stay connected with their customers from anywhere, at any time. 

The Development of Cloud-Based CRM 

Salesforce: The Pioneer of Cloud-Based CRM

The second event to permanently shake up the CRM industry was the arrival of Salesforce. Founded by Mark Benioff, a former Oracle executive and inspired by Amazon, Salesforce pioneered the software industry’s move to the cloud and never looked back. 

Introduction of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS)

Their concept would provide software through a new model called Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), a method of software delivery and licensing in which software is accessed online via a subscription, rather than bought and installed on individual computers.

Salesforce’s Strategic Approach to Capture SMB Market

Salesforce did not cause a great stir when it launched in 1999. In fact, most competitors regarded cloud services as a fad and a poor vehicle for CRM. Salesforce’s initial attention was wisely directed at small to medium businesses. 

By the time competitors woke up to the migration of customers to the cloud, Salesforce had become the world’s largest vendor of CRM. Before long, cloud-based storage and applications was widespread and Salesforce had positioned itself as an industry leader.

Rise of Cloud-Based CRM Solutions in Mid-2000s

By the mid-2000s, a range of cloud-based CRM solutions revolutionized the industry by offering scalability, flexibility, cost-effectiveness, and ease of implementation. These solutions eliminated the need for on-premises infrastructure, making CRM accessible to businesses of all sizes. Cloud-based CRM also facilitated integration with other business systems, enabling a seamless flow of data and a holistic view of customer interactions.

Evolution of Marketing Automation and Emergence of Inbound Marketing

Marketing automation took another leap forward in 2006 when Hubspot CEO Brian Halligan introduced the concept of inbound marketing, a strategic approach to creating valuable content that aligned with the needs of target audiences and inspired long-term customer relationships.

“Content marketing” and “thought leadership” became buzzwords. These approaches changed how leads were routed to the sales team and fueled the emergence of more technologies to integrate data from marketing into sales. Instead of reaching out to customers cold, leads were dispatched salespeople when they searched for information on Google or read a blog related to a specific product.

Salesforce’s Service Cloud and the Introduction of App Store-Like Marketplace

In 2009, Salesforce reached another milestone in the history of customer service when it introduced the service cloud. At Steve Jobs’ recommendation, Salesforce introduced an app store-like marketplace to allow third-party vendors to develop add-on products for Salesforce customers, thereby becoming the one system that could “do it all.”  It took over smaller organizations and added new functionality at breakneck speed. 

As of 2023, the market for new cloud-based CRM products does not seem to have reached its saturation point. Rising companies continue to come to market with fresh options, while existing vendors change their licensing models to offer cloud alternatives to traditional site licenses.

The Impact of Social Media

The 2010s saw the rise of social data and the need to interact with customers on various social platforms. In a matter of years, social media went from a college campus trend to a necessary function of any successful customer-facing business. This naturally led to the emergence of social CRM. 

Social CRM integrated social media data and interactions into CRM systems, allowing organizations to monitor conversations, engage with customers, and manage brand reputation. Social media also provided valuable insights into customer sentiment, preferences, and trends, enabling companies to deliver personalized experiences and build stronger relationships.

As social media opened up a completely new marketplace from which to attract customers, the ability to be connected across all the various networks was built into CRM programs. Nearly two decades since Facebook was launched, the potential of these channels to boost sales and attract new customers has yet to be fully explored.

AI and Automation in CRM

In recent years, artificial intelligence (AI) has emerged as a transformative force in various industries, including CRM. AI technologies are revolutionizing business by enhancing customer interactions, improving data analysis, and enabling personalized experiences at scale. 

Here are some key ways AI is transforming CRM today.

Intelligent lead scoring and qualification

AI-powered CRM systems can analyze large volumes of data to identify and prioritize leads based on their likelihood to convert. By utilizing advanced algorithms, AI evaluates historical data, customer behavior patterns, and demographic information to assign lead scores and determine the quality of leads. This enables sales teams to focus their efforts on the most promising opportunities, contributing to more efficient sales processes.

Customer segmentation and targeting

AI algorithms are also able to analyze vast amounts of customer data to identify segments with similar characteristics, preferences, and behaviors. In segmenting customers effectively, organizations tailor their marketing efforts and communication strategies to specific customer groups. This leads to targeted messaging, personalized offers, and customized campaigns, resulting in improved engagement and higher conversion rates.

Predictive analytics and sales forecasting

Do you like having a crystal ball? AI algorithms are built to analyze vast amounts of customer data to identify trends, patterns, and correlations, generate accurate sales forecasts, and optimize pipeline management. 

Through predictive analytics, AI-enabled CRM systems can anticipate customer behavior, such as purchase likelihood, product preferences, and churn probability (the risk of a customer leaving your company or canceling a subscription to a service). These insights empower organizations to make data-driven decisions, optimize marketing campaigns, refine resource allocation, increase customer retention, and improve sales performance.

Natural language processing (NLP) and sentiment analysis

AI-powered CRM systems use natural language processing (NLP) and sentiment analysis to analyze customer feedback, social media posts, emails, and customer service interactions. This allows organizations to monitor brand reputation, understand customer feelings, identify potential concerns, and take proactive measures to address issues.

Voice recognition and conversational interfaces

Rapidly improving voice recognition technology, powered by AI, enables CRM systems to understand and interpret spoken language. These interfaces facilitate hands-free and natural language interactions, enabling sales representatives to update records, schedule appointments, and access information on the go. 

Personalized customer experiences

AI equips CRM systems to deliver personalized experiences at scale by generating recommendations, content, and product offers tailored to individual preferences. AI-powered chatbots and virtual assistants can engage with customers in real-time, addressing queries with information based on historical interactions and customer profiles. This level of personalization enhances customer satisfaction, increases engagement, and fosters long-term loyalty.

Workflow optimization

AI-driven automation streamlines repetitive and time-consuming tasks within CRM processes. AI is able to automate data entry, update records in real time, and trigger specific actions based on predefined rules or customer triggers. This automation improves efficiency, reduces manual errors, and enables teams to allocate their time more strategically.

As AI continues to advance, CRM systems will become even more intelligent, enabling businesses to drive growth, and stay ahead in today’s highly competitive market.

Conclusion: What The Future Holds

It may have been a long and winding road for CRM to arrive where it is today. However, the industry is headed in the right direction – to a place where our customer service capabilities are stronger than ever. 

Still, the future of CRM is likely to be shaped by advancements in AI, automation, and other emerging technologies. 

AI will continue to enhance CRM systems, offering more sophisticated predictive analytics, hyper-personalization, and automated workflows. Integration with Internet of Things (IoT) devices will enable real-time data collection, while augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) revolutionize customer experiences. 

Ethical considerations around data privacy and security will remain crucial, requiring organizations to adopt responsible practices. Overall, the future of CRM holds exciting possibilities for improved customer engagement, enhanced decision-making, and continued growth in customer-centric strategies.

Only time will tell where the evolution goes from here. Meanwhile, if you use CRM systems, you should get ready for an interesting ride and be prepared to utilize the most up-to-date technology available to streamline your business and provide the best possible experience for your customers.