Lessons learned by a CRM veteran

I have spent much of the past eight years working with CRM systems and have a lot of faith in the promise of the technology. But realizing that promise requires a commitment that many companies aren’t prepared to make.

At a previous employer, a software development company, I was actively involved as a software engineer in three different CRM implementations, although all three used the same product. When the need for a CRM system became clear, we selected a product that had been effectively implemented by another company with a similar business model.

Our first project, which took six months, included only the sales department. Later releases, staggered over the next year, integrated technical support, product distribution, finance and — to a lesser degree — marketing. But after a couple of years of working with this system, we realized we had a model that was flawed in two key areas.

First, it focused on serving individuals as customers, rather than companies as customers. This became a problem as our business strategy changed and we entered into larger deals selling software to development companies rather than to individual developers. Second, the overall implementation was built piecemeal, focusing on the needs of each department. The resulting system didn’t allow us to smoothly move work among departments. So we tried again.

For the second implementation, my company invested significant resources to design a system with the complete involvement of all current and potential client groups.

We completed a design that met the requirements of marketing, sales, technical support, professional services, software development, product distribution and finance. And it met the needs of our U.S., European and Asian operations.

But it didn’t take long to realize that we hadn’t built the ultimate system we had envisioned. The overall complexity of the product introduced some significant process issues, and it wasn’t amenable to the rapid changes the company wanted. So we tried yet again.

For the third implementation, we tried software that was as “out of the box” as possible. We focused the system design on sales, where we had experienced most of the pain with the existing system. We upgraded to the latest version of the software, which significantly improved the user interface. We also vowed to adapt our processes to the product to minimize customization.

A third-party process consultant with significant CRM experience was brought in to help us design a workflow that met the specific needs of sales and would fit well with the strengths and weaknesses of our CRM product. Still no success. The new software, though more user-friendly, was relatively immature; the sales process, carefully designed though it was, wasn’t consistently followed. And the out-of-the-box vendor solution simply wasn’t robust enough for an implementation of our size and complexity.

So three tries, three failures. What went wrong? I have identified the following:

Workstyle differences. And our efforts were further complicated because the people involved in the project were spread around the world.

Lack of adequate off-line and integration tools. Although this is due in large part to the limitations of our CRM product, it is, I believe, a problem commonly faced by most CRM implementers.

The process resistance of sales teams. I don’t want to offend my sales colleagues — I see the roots of this behavior in the nonprocedural and independent nature of their work.

The rate of desired change typically exceeding our ability to implement it. Eventually, this led to an environment in which IT resisted, rather than embraced, change.

Poor data quality control. My company didn’t pay nearly enough attention to entering data into the system correctly and maintaining its integrity.

The failure of consensus design. Our “design by representation” ended up being built by representatives without sufficient authority and influence to effectively champion the proposed design.

Failure of policy enforcement. A CRM system will work well only if it’s used consistently.

Despite all these flaws, it’s possible to implement an effective CRM system, but only under the following conditions:

– The benefits expected from the CRM must be clearly identified.

– Consistent processes must be defined (even if their granularity is coarse) and enforced.

– Sufficient attention must be dedicated to data quality control. This is one of the most critical — and most easily overlooked — keys to success.

– Process and tool “rough spots” must be recognized and resolved quickly.

– Customization must be minimized. Just remember that there is an ongoing maintenance obligation created by each line of customization you add.

No two CRM implementations will be the same. But many aspects of CRM design and implementation will remain the same across products and industries. Success depends much more on your ability to think broadly and speak persuasively than on the features of the CRM system you select and the technical skills of your team.

Keith Spitz is a software engineer at Wall Street on Demand Inc. in Boulder, Colo. You can reach him at Keith.Spitz@wallst.com.

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