Few technology concepts have been hyped more and delivered less to the insurance industry than customer relationship management, also known as CRM.

At the beginning of this century, pundits, including yours truly, were singing the praises of this technology initiative, which basically promised that technology would enable us to determine the wants and needs of our most profitable customers and then help us to develop products and services aimed at those very profitable folks.

A few years and multiple problems later, however (estimates of the failure rate are as high as 70%, with losses approaching $100 million), insurers were left licking their wounds and cursing the day they had first heard the dreaded acronym.

Reasons offered for the CRM failures ranged from user incompetence to overblown expectations (driven by over-zealous vendors) to failure of companies to make the necessary cultural and policy changes that would allow the technology to work.

All of these were contributing causes to be sure, but one excuse almost no one offered was that the technology itself was bad–and rightly so, because the technology works. While some might wish to dismiss the whole CRM idea as a hoax (rather than admit their own complicity in its failure), it was clearly not that.

Nonetheless, such a striking record of failure seemed sure to put a fork in CRM, at least as far as the insurance industry was concerned. But a funny thing has happened in the last several years. CRM has not been totally abandoned by our industry. On the contrary, it seems that while insurers couldn’t handle the totality of CRM, they are embracing some of its parts.

For me, this situation calls to mind the 1962 cult classic film “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die” (also released as “The Head That Wouldn’t Die” for reasons that will become apparent as you read on). This black-and-white B-movie is the story of a gifted doctor and surgeon whose own arrogance and thirst for control leads to tragedy.

In the film, our doctor has developed an anti-rejection drug he believes will change medicine and the world. His doctor father warns him about the dangers of playing God, but to no avail, as he undertakes some particularly grisly experiments with various body parts–all in the name of “science.”

Things take an unexpected turn, however, when he and his nurse fianc?e are involved in a car crash in which the lovely lady literally loses her head. Not to worry, though, because our anti-hero promptly scoops up the flying noggin before it can roll too far, wraps it in his suit jacket, and runs to his secret basement laboratory nearby.

There he uses his miracle drug and an assortment of beakers, retorts and hoses to revive the head, which sits (remarkably still well made-up) in what looks like a baking pan filled with soy sauce. The bodiless babe even talks to her intended and others, despite the obvious fact that she has no lungs into which to draw air to make conversation possible.

But it doesn’t end there. The doctor–not exactly an ethical giant–then undertakes a rather salacious search for a body to replace the damaged article. His travels take him, among other places, to a beauty pageant and later a strip club (where two of the candidates get into a cat fight over who will have the distinction of being four-fifths of the doctor’s new girlfriend).

By now, you’re probably wondering how on earth I am going to relate this to CRM. Well, here’s the point. When the mad doctor’s plans fail, instead of giving up, he literally picks up the pieces and runs with them, determined to find a way to make things work. And that is precisely what is happening with the decapitated corpse of CRM as we knew it.

Although few will call it CRM, there is no doubt that many companies are now focused on being more “customer-centric,” one of the prime goals of CRM. Further, such activities as sales force automation, customer service technologies, and centralized customer information strategies remain popular, and all are key elements that the CRM vendors promised.

Just as the mad doctor’s grand plans for humanity proved unworkable, CRM as a be-all/end-all for insurers’ marketing/product development challenges turned out to be a case of carriers “biting off more than they could chew,” as Celent analyst Matt Josefowicz puts it.

CRM wasn’t a hoax and it didn’t die. “We’ve seen the explosion of the category,” Josefowicz notes. “Now the solutions under the umbrella are still out there and still delivering value.”

So what happens in the film? I don’t have the space, or the stomach, to deal with it here. Let’s just say that it demonstrates very convincingly that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.