The path of least resistance

Perhaps you’re tired of sales staff badgering you to provide the latest information about customers before each meeting. Or maybe your current sales software is clunky and out of date. Regardless, you’ve decided now is the time to roll out a customer relationship management (CRM) package. Here’s what you’re up against: First, according to Gartner Inc., four out of every 10 mid-size CRM implementations will fail. Period. Also, know now that the project could easily swallow half the money you have earmarked for e-business. Experts say you might even have to throw 70 years’ worth of business best practices out the window.

Now the good news. Toronto-based IDC Canada recently polled Canada’s medium and large business community and found that companies with 100 to 500 employees show more speed and savvy when it comes to e-commerce, and attach greater importance to getting solutions up and running.

In the end, there’s a lot going for you. Experts say if you follow some already well-established best practices, and understand the nuances particular to CRM, you stand a very good chance of coming through intact.

Know Thyself

CRM projects come in many shapes and sizes. In the case of Sturdell Industries Inc., a Rexdale, Ont.-based manufacturer of steel products to the mould, tool and dye industries that recently implemented sales automation software, the task was relatively small. Nick Laird, president of Sturdell, said he was fed up with the limitations of the company’s contact management system. “The software we had before was just an absolute nightmare to maintain,” he said. “It was costing us too much to maintain it. We hosted the thing on our own server, and when the guys on the outside had to synchronize they had to phone our server. Some of them were located in long-distance area codes, so there was that expense.”

Besides its headquarters in Rexdale, Sturdell also maintains an office in Rochester, N.Y., both home to a combined 30-strong sales team. Although they were accustomed to using the old software, the cost of constantly having to rebuild the internal database plus field calls from the sales team who needed more information on the customers convinced Laird that it was time for a change. “It was at the point where instead of helping us it was hindering us,” he said.

So he turned to SalesLogix from Toronto-based software provider eyeQ. With it, Sturdell’s sales staff has access to the latest customer data via the Web, as soon as it is available.

Officials at the Electrical Safety Authority, (formerly part of Ontario Hydro) which enforces electrical codes in the province, were also running an older, proprietary work order management system for its 220 field inspectors. Each inspector would download work orders, schedule his day accordingly, and then upload the results at the end of the day to one of 13 “mini-call centres” around the province. “But the system wasn’t integrated. It was a series of individual databases around the province, and we wanted toward more of a best practice kind of system, and a fully integrated system,” said Stephen Moses, the Authority’s Mississauga, Ont.-based CIO. Moses wanted to find a way to increase the amount of customer data available to the inspectors and provide easier access to it, streamlining the entire work order procedure in the process. ESA chose to implement SAP Canada’s mySAP CRM Mobile.

Experts say identifying from the outset exactly what problem the CRM package is intended to solve is the best way to start. According to figures from Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner, ignoring this maxim is the biggest reason why so many sales automation projects never see completion. “If you don’t have a strategy, you’ll make the same mistakes over and over again, and you won’t achieve your objective,” said Gartner senior research analyst Esteban Kolsky.

In fact, much of a CRM rollout hinges on what happens in the early stages. First, ensure the vendor you have selected is suitable. And don’t immediately look to the market leader, warn experts. It’s better to select a vendor with substantial mid-market experience, and even better if that company can demonstrate customers in your niche market. Check out the company’s level of support – is it 24 hours, and can you get someone on the phone right away?

Also, make sure you don’t attempt to fix what isn’t broken. Mike Davidson, market development manager with SAP Canada in Toronto, said that some companies merely need to tweak their existing processes, as opposed to engaging in any heavy-duty overhaul of their front and back offices. “There are other areas where you have to question what the return on investment on value is, simply because these guys…are often doing CRM pretty well because they have a small group of customers, they know these customers, and they have a pretty good take on what their needs are. The idea that you need some sort of huge customer database to track all this maybe starts not to make as much sense,” he said. “There’s a lot that depends.”

Getting Down to Work

Once you have taken these concerns into consideration, it’s time to deal with the nitty-gritty of the rollout. It may sound obvious, but the two biggest challenges facing you now are technology and people. Kolsky said companies might find CRM software daunting, depending on what level of sophistication is being targeted. It could be as relatively simple as Sturdell’s rollout, where the vendor took care of the grunt work and hosts the application server. But firms with several hundred employees could be looking at adding a new layer of middleware, buying new servers, and may end up with a user interface that looks vastly different from what the sales force is currently using. With the right partner (picking one should involve a process similar to picking the vendor), adequate resources and some planning, linking new software and hardware is achievable.

People issues can be far stickier, however. Laura Pollard, president of Accelerate Growth Management, a Toronto-based CRM consultancy, and president of CRMA Canada, a nation-wide, non-profit organization dedicated to CRM training and education, said the high failure rates can be attributed to the wall that continues to divide technology and business staff. “I call it the Vulcan mind meld between technology and business guys,” Pollard said. “We see a high failure rate. Technology is being deployed without a business connection.”

Pollard teaches new media and technology courses at the University of Toronto, as well as CRM-specific workshops at companies in Canada and the U.S. She said corporate politics is the number one killer of sales automation projects. Designating a project lead from the outset, one that can balance departmental needs with overreaching corporate objectives, is crucial. Such an approach works better than leaving the job solely to the head of the sales or technology department. “That’s a management issue. It doesn’t happen in an explicitly manner.”

Moses said his project was helped by a staff already accustomed to working remotely, but added there were still challenges to overcome. “So even though it’s still mobile, and effectively the same functionality, they still have to learn new screens, a new workflow, if you like, in dealing with the terminal. From that point of view, it was a challenge to them,” he said.

Making It Useful

Once installed, it’s time to train the sales team. According to Kolsky, this is where the smaller organizations start to show their strength vis-