In 2001 , Gartner estimated that at least half of all Salesforce Automation (SFA) or Customer Relationship Management (CRM) projects would fail. By 2013, groups like Bain and Merkle were estimating that CRM failures were in excess of 60 per cent, with some estimates skyrocketing over 70.

Have we come to accept that as many as half of our projects (read: investments) in customer relationships and data are likely — if not guaranteed — to fail? Failure or not, we keep investing. In 2015, Gartner estimated that the CRM industry as a whole had increased by 13 per cent year over year to an astounding $US23.2 billion.

In 1986 when ACT! was introduced as a contact management solution, sales leaders rejoiced at their new-found ability to store, manage and track contacts more efficiently and effectively. It was literally a contact manager — until it wasn’t.

By 1993, when Tom Siebel left Oracle to hang his own tech-shingle, early CMS programs had evolved to combine the automated deployment of database marketing campaigns with sales contact management, dropping it all into one window.

This was that peanut butter meets chocolate moment, when sales process and marketing engagement collided in one glorious automated system. Start to sprinkle in principles and tool sets from Enterprise Resource Management (ERP) solutions, extend the ability to map and track engagement and marketing processes, include talent management principles to help guide sales team actions, and all of a sudden we were welcoming the age of Customer Relationship Management with little to no apprehension.

Almost as soon as the evolution began, the failures emerged. Sales teams called it Sales-Forced Automation. CRM tools were being used to pump out all forms of communications from letters to emails at lightening speed. Between automatic marketing campaigns triggered by someone having the temerity to say hello at a trade show, to automatic reminders for sales executives to call a contact regardless of need or situation, the people started to bristle because the machine was blindly leading the charge. So they went out and bought a new machine.

The fact of the matter is that it wasn’t a machine randomly making these decisions. It was a person who, upon setting up those systems, had to map out a flowchart diagram of if-then scenarios including precise timings, engagement elements, starts, stops, pauses and hand-offs.

I know this because at one point in the early 2000s it was my job to set up these new maps. If I am being totally honest, I wasn’t setting up a customer relationship. I was programming and mapping a one-size-fits-all vision that was only based on what actions I wanted to achieve. If the customer moved in a different direction, it was easier to reclassify that “prospect” as inactive or dead than actually understand why the experience or engagement didn’t achieve the goal I had planned.

Fast-forward to 2016 and we have an entirely different problem. We are still creating these life-cycle processes, assigning trigger points for engagement and automating the ideal journey we want a customer to take. We have automated our perfect marketing experience. Yet we stand by, shocked, that these programs and systems are still failing.

Perhaps it is time to take a step back and reassess what we are automating and why we are so eager to make it all go that much faster. Don’t get me wrong — I love technology and the efficiencies that automation brings along with it. I’m just suggesting that we stop racing around the track for enough time to reverse-engineer the process back to our business goals and then blend that with the voice of our customers — from those who are our most valuable to those who are our least.

What are those new questions we need to identify in our data resources that can help inform the underlying algorithms and processes that power automation? To steal a line from our friends @SAP Hybris, are we able to see “beyond CRM” and instead factor in our ability to be ready with contextual experiences? Do we have intelligence systems that can help guide and inform a multitude of micro-processes that wait for the customer to indicate what will add the most value to their day? Have we asked new questions about where our customer has been, where they are now, and how we might walk into a new direction together?

Or are we still assuming that, if we build a path, our customers will dutifully walk down it out of some mechanical reflex to stay loyal?

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