The history of CRM

Today, a CRM is an everyday component for most organisations. It’s a core part of customer service, business growth, and data management. And the idea of CRM as a practice is older than you might think.

While the term ‘customer relationship management’ is fairly new, the underlying practice is well-established. In fact, the history of CRM could be almost as old as trade itself.

Here, we cast our view back over the decades — centuries, even — to explore the evolution of the software and techniques so crucial to business today.

Pre 20th century and the ledger

An argument can be made that the history of CRM (as a concept, not a technology) starts alongside the history of trade. That is, with records kept of who owes what to whom.

Such early accounting records could be considered a crude customer database. They may, for instance, have included names and addresses. This retained data could then be used for deliveries, to collect payment due, etc.

So, while it wasn’t thought of as a CRM, the ledgers used to keep track of early trade could be considered a rudimentary method of managing customer relationships with merchants.

The Rolodex

Fast-forwarding to a slightly more recent history brings us to the 1950s and the invention of the Rolodex. (A portmanteau of rolling and index).

The Rolodex was/is a rotating device used to file detachable/re-attachable index cards. These cards hold details about different people and companies. So, those in business can use their handy desk Rolodex to easily access information about their customers and clients.

Compared to the ledger, the Rolodex offered greater ease in finding customer information, adding new customers, and updating details.

Enter computers

The history of CRM continues with the introduction of computers to businesses. Independent mainframe systems became widely available to businesses in the early 1960s. These systems could retrieve data from customer databases and apply a (basic) level of automation.

Early database systems used to store customer data allowed businesses to categorise customers. Importantly, they could do so digitally – in a move away from the slower, clunkier filing cabinet system. Plus, organisations could begin digitising physical files into their databases to create ease of search.

As such, this is the time that automation enters the history of CRM. It was used to assist with maintaining accounting records. This automation application soon spread to other departments, including sales and marketing. And, from there, came the next evolution of CRM.

From direct marketing to database marketing

In the 1980s, the history of CRM evolved again in the form of a shift from direct marketing to database marketing. This marks the beginning of combining customer data with sales strategy — a core part of CRM as we know it today. 

💡 Direct marketing: Any marketing practice that involves direct communication or interaction with individual customers. For example, through direct postal communication such as catalogues and letters.

💡 Database marketing: A form of direct marketing that involves collecting customer data, analysing this data, and using it to create personalised marketing messages and predict the actions and wants of potential new customers. It’s about using data to optimise marketing efforts.

Contact management software

The end of the 1980s saw the creation of the first-ever contact management software, which was called ACT.

A contact manager is a program that eases the storage of contact information. (Such as names, addresses, emails, phone numbers and so on.) It’s a type of database that focuses on contact data — from contact details to communication activities related to those contacts.

CRM as a product

As offices digitised throughout the 1990s, the history of CRM saw a plethora of customer data management products. These included combinations of database marketing tools and contact management programs, as well as the first enterprise resource planning (ERP) tools.

💡 ERP: Enterprise resource planning software that deals with the management of main business processes — including areas around customer relations.

The term ‘CRM’ or ‘Customer Relationship Management’ was (finally) coined in 1995. These systems now had the name that we still use today.

CRM, the cloud, and social media

Cloud CRM software became available at the end of the 1990s and grew in the early 2000s. This is when the first CRM as a SaaS (software as a service) offering was introduced. Over the course of the 2000s, the online — or cloud-based — CRM system grew in popularity.

In the late 2000s, businesses and social media converged, adding a new element to the power and influence of a good CRM system and practice.

The modern CRM

These days, the role of customer experience in ensuring business success is paramount. And CRM is a staple of business data tools and practices. That is, CRM is now part and parcel of the overall customer experience strategy for many businesses.

Customer relationship management systems are increasingly improving with the integration of other technologies. For instance, they’re gaining analytic and data intelligence functionality. They work well with automation software — which can now do more to optimise the customer data you collect.

Then, there’s the growing capabilities and proliferation of artificial intelligence (AI) technology. With machine learning and intelligent analysis, the CRM is set to become even more proficient at giving businesses the best picture of their customers. 

The history of CRM

As with many of our modern technologies and practices, CRM has a rich history that dates further back than you might initially think.

What’s certain now is that CRM technologies, paired with automation and eventually AI, aren’t going anywhere any time soon.

Useful links

The history of databases

The modern business and the debt we owe to filing cabinets

The 50-year history of email