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Customer relationships in the chemical industry are usually long-lasting; you don’t see customers come and go, as you might in other sectors. They’re also built on personal relationships, designed by people for people.

Because of the durability of these relationships, sales managers and customer service representatives can build a wealth of personal information about their customers in their hearts and minds. They like to manage this data with solutions like Microsoft Excel or One Note, which, they say, are easy to use and personally benefit them. If they need to share customer data with others, they can. If they need to add information about an existing customer, it’s quick and easy to set it up.

This preference for generic tools is true even if the company has a proper customer relationship management (CRM) system in place. But nobody cares about it, because sales and customer service employees see no value in a company-wide, complex setup when it doesn’t store personal information about the customer and therefore draws an incomplete picture of the relationship.

Even so, usability isn’t the main reason people still struggle with the CRM system. In my experience, it is something much more fundamental.

CRM’s background

CRM’s history goes back to the mid-’80s, when Robert and Kate Kestnbaum started to collect and analyze customer information, then used that data to customize their communications with other potential customers.

Then, in 1993, Tom Siebel left Oracle to create Siebel Systems, which developed what were called enterprise customer management or customer information systems. By late 1995, customer relationship management won the name battle. Over the following years, the concept of CRM continued to develop.

I was introduced to CRM in the early 2000s. I remember people talking about CRM like it was the Holy Grail but with a bit of fear in their voices. With time, it turned out that it wasn’t a grail but a beast. People were not clear on why they should “feed the beast” with data since everything they found in the system was something they already knew.

“It’s to make sure another colleague can take over in case you’re on sick leave,” the leadership team said. “Really?!?” the employees thought. Some argued it was important to use CRM get a better view on what markets were doing and on how segments were developing. In reality, most chemical industry business continued operating as it had for years before, person-to-person.

Reporting often was designed during implementation, not before. And regional business is not easily transformed into simple data, ready for managers to use. Although CRM found its way to the cloud with Salesforce in 2007, the arguments against it didn’t change immediately. CRM kept being a pain for organizations.

More than a reporting tool

CRM was developed as a reporting tool, and the biggest mistake companies can do today is to introduce CRM as such, hoping the tool will close all of its gaps in processes, organization, mindset, etc. You know what happens with a fool and a tool, don’t you? CRM is often introduced as an IT project, mandated by headquarters, considered far removed from a sales representative’s or customer service rep’s daily life. It didn’t seem to solve issues or benefit the most important player in the game, the customer.

In other words: If your business doesn’t have and follow rock-solid objectives, introducing a new system such as CRM won’t change the way people work or how customer relationships are managed, nor will it help you become more successful.

Make it happen

The fundamental thing you need for customer relationships in the chemical industry is the big picture flavored with measurable business objectives. In times when data is gathered across touchpoints and exchanged across systems in lightning speed, when communication departments are not only working on brochures and web content but on attracting prospects and customers, and when marketing claims lead generation and lead qualification as part of their domain, it’s time to rethink the whole CRM thing.
“The sales department isn’t the whole company, but the whole company better be the sales department.” – Philip Kotler


Trust is a success factor for a successful CRM project. People deserve and need to understand the ultimate goals of a CRM before it’s introduced. Otherwise, they’ll have a hard time releasing the brake and driving full speed. The chemical industry is an asset-heavy industry. Frequently acquiring new customers might not be a scenario an experienced sales manager would buy into.

CRM is not only for reporting but to increase business effectiveness. It doesn’t reflect only the views and the experiences of sales managers and customer service reps, but of everybody who engages with customers or users. Digitalization changed interactions, including who is interacting with whom on different touchpoints. Communications and marketing are changing their roles to support measurable business success, feeding the already known with new data.

The times are over when a handful of contacts in your customer organization were known as “the customer.” Now we must think in end-to-end scenarios and relevant, measurable business objectives, embrace the challenges, and foster change in business. Communications, marketing, and sales are all part of one team playing in today’s CRM game.