By Rick Cook

Consultants, vendors and other veterans of the CRM wars will tell you they see the same three problems over and over again. There are a lot of things you need avoid to implement successful CRM, but these are the Big Three. Big, not just in the sense of being the most common, but big because they can doom even the most lavishly-supported CRM effort.

No Strategy

To put it bluntly, far too many companies spend far too little time thinking about what they want to accomplish with a CRM solution.

At all but the simplest levels, CRM is a strategic decision. Strategy is the beginning of the process, and not just CRM strategy. CRM should exist to support strategic corporate goals that extend well beyond CRM itself.

Without a CRM strategy you are flying blind. There's a pretty good chance you'll see some improvement from CRM, but you won't get nearly the benefits you should, and the project is much less likely to be successful.

For example, two common goals for CRM are gaining new customers and improving care of existing customers. Those aren't antithetical, but they do tend to pull the CRM effort in different directions. Gaining new customers tends to emphasize lead development and qualification, while improving customer care puts the emphasis on customer contact and a unified view of the customer. New-customer strategies put strong emphasis on marketing. Better customer care tends to emphasize improving the sales, ordering and after-order processes. Further, the kinds of data warehouses you develop to support these goals are quite different.

Of course, your strategy can involve both seeking new customers and improving care of existing customers. But if you don't have an explicit strategic direction and don't know what you need to implement it, you're quickly going to dissipate your effort in a forest of CRM choices.

Not Getting Cooperation

While not having a CRM strategy is the most common cause of problems, not securing "buy in" from your employees and management team probably causes the most contention.

Probably the most common ongoing problem for CRM is not getting enthusiastic cooperation from all the stakeholders affected by your new CRM system. Getting genuine buy in is often the most exhausting part of implementing a CRM solution. But the alternative is either partial success or flat failure.

Ultimately, successful CRM depends on the support of the stakeholders, from the top executives to the sales force and customer-service reps. If they don't support it, your CRM effort probably won't succeed.

Buy in starts at the top. Because of the level of effort involved in a full CRM implementation, top managers need to be convinced that CRM is worth the effort and money. Ideally, they should be able to see tangible, bottom-line benefits at least several times the cost of implementation. And most importantly, they have to believe it is possible to reach these goals with the proposed CRM strategy. Without the enthusiasm, commitment and support of the management, your CRM will be in trouble from the beginning.

However, getting support from the people who will actually use the system is at least as important. CRM has to be used to work. If the users don't buy into it, they won't use the system — and if they don't use the system, you don't get the benefits.

If you talk to CRM enthusiasts, they'll usually tell you that typical reasons for user resistance include fear of the unknown, a "We've always done it this way" attitude, and fear of extra work for no apparent benefit. These may be partially true. However, part of the resistance can also be that the system as presented doesn't really meet the users' needs. This is frighteningly easy to do if you don't keep the users’ needs in view as you develop the system.

It's important to listen to what your employees are telling you as you develop and prototype your CRM system. Look for points of frustration in the current system and explore how CRM can alleviate that pain.

Part of getting buy in is simple marketing. You need to sell CRM to your people just as vigorously as you sell to your company's customers. Start your buy-in campaign early and hit the theme often. One problem with buy in is that it's like a New Year's resolution — it's not permanent. Don't just create momentum for CRM in the early days, make sure the system continues to be used as you move forward.

CRM isn't the only thing you should be selling. One characteristic of CRM is that it encourages teamwork throughout the company. In a comprehensive CRM project, team building should be one of the goals. You need to bring people to the idea that they are part of a team working together for mutual benefit.

You also need to train your people. Training is vital for those who will use the system. They not only need to know which buttons to push, they need to see how they can use the system to make themselves more productive. Make sure your users thoroughly understand the system and are as comfortable as possible using it before you complete the implementation. Additionally, provide your users with lots of cheat sheets and reference cards so they can refresh themselves on the procedures as needed.

Finally, understand that you're going to have to use a stick as well as a carrot to get everyone to fall into line. Some people are going to have to be coerced into using CRM. But if you've done your marketing right, there shouldn't be many of them.

Starting with Technology

Technology is a critical part of CRM, but it should ideally be the last part you address. A technocentric focus isn't quite as dangerous as the previous two problems, but it can still thoroughly derail a CRM effort.

Ideally, CRM starts with the customer, proceeds through the business process and finally arrives at the technology. It can even work well if you start with the process and proceed to the technology. But starting with the technology is going to hamper your progress and distort your entire CRM effort.

For one thing, you can't effectively choose a CRM vendor until you have your strategy in place. Although CRM products are superficially similar, they tend to be quite different in detail, and those differences frequently aren't apparent in looking at a list of features. You need a well-defined CRM approach against which to compare the software. If you don't know exactly what you need, it's easy to choose the wrong package.

Don't be tempted to start specifying technology or specific features too early. While you're setting strategy and defining objectives, you should ignore the technical requirements and concentrate on what you want done. Later, in the technology phase of the project, you can worry about the how.

However, this doesn't mean you should ignore your IT people in the early parts of the CRM process. They undoubtedly have some process-related concerns that can be addressed by effective CRM as well as expertise on some issues.

One example is making sure the data in the system is accurate. Data cleaning is an established technology with a large core of best practices. Your IT staff will either be familiar with the field of data cleaning or can quickly come up to speed on it.

You also want your CRM system to exchange information with existing applications. For example, your sales force is going to need access to the information in your inventory system to answer customers’ questions about availability.

While these kinds of concerns aren't appropriate for the strategy-setting phase, they do need to be addressed in the succeeding preimplementation phases, and you'll definitely need this information as you move to vendor evaluation.

Don't Strike Out with CRM

CRM is a tool, and like any tool it has to be used effectively to produce results. Without a strategy, you're like a woodworker using a cabinet saw to cut pieces of wood at random. Without buy in, you're handing your users a power tool they don't want to — and likely won't — use. And having a techno-centric strategy is like going tool shopping before you know what it is you want to build.

However, if you do it right, you can use CRM to build some beautiful things for your company.