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Straight Talk: CRM Software Selection Advice From The Trenches

By Robert Kane,

Reams have been written by analysts and pundits about the right and wrong ways to select, implement, and manage CRM software systems. Based on surveys, studies, and hands-on experience, there is certainly no lack of opinion for those about to embark on a CRM initiative. However, while theory and generalizations prevail, readers often seek practical and specific recommendations that they can immediately apply to their CRM projects. Rather than contribute more of the same to the theoretical mass, we decided to take a different approach – we asked CRM vendors for their most practical advice and best practices with the highest impact.

Best Practice: Select For The Long Run But Implement For The Short Run

Following the lead in what has been learned from ERP selection projects, there was strong consistency that the most successful organizations planned enterprise CRM solutions but phased their projects into manageable pieces and delivered incremental results over time. Most customer facing organizations struggle with the amount of change that comes with a new CRM as invariably processes and culture evolve in conjunction with new technology adoption. Phasing the roll-out by CRM module, business unit, or geographic location grants the CRM implementation team greater focus and manageability. The key to a successful phased approach is to thoroughly understand the larger project and to link the design and configuration decisions of each component to the big picture enterprise strategy. So don’t mortgage your future and settle for a system that has better near-term fit but does not provide a long term solution. Once you have selected a CRM solution, begin the project thinking about how to phase the roll-out so that you deliver the greatest value early and gain momentum during the longer haul.

Worst Practice: Believe The "60 Days To Go Live" Hype

Much of the SaaS community has done a disservice to itself and its customers by setting unrealistic expectations about the amount of time necessary to achieve a successful SaaS CRM implementation. Real world experience shows us the time to go live follows a bell curve where an average of 60 days can be achieved with thoughtful planning and limited scope, however, at least one third of accelerated implementation projects historically take longer. For simple implementations, where the company has well-defined sales and support processes and does not require software customization or significant changes to software configuration, on-demand CRM implementations can actually be live in as little as a few weeks. But remembering the bell curve, that rate of occurrence is comparable to the number of implementations consuming upward of a year to go live. You want a vendor who can deliver a tailored implementation project that provides you expertise where you need it – not where their canned methodology mandates it. And most of all, you want a vendor who aligns with your sense of urgency for the project. Many are quick to sell software and slow to get engaged. Most companies agree that getting the implementation right matters far more than doing it fast. Set realistic expectations that are grounded in the facts and reality of your firm’s operating maturity or complexity in CRM-related processes.

Worst Practice: Buying on Features and Not on Objectives

Getting enamored with gadgets, bells and whistles during the software selection process is a recipe for failed ROI. Some CRM vendors are excellent at hype and only to proud to tell you about their latest marketing campaign or advertising run. Some emphasize the hype of their newest features and in many cases seek to change your buying criteria to align with their latest product announcements. This dynamic adds even more complexity and confusion to the already arduous task of selecting a CRM software solution which best aligns to your most strategic objectives and resolves your biggest pain points. Worse yet, force fitting new, never before considered features into an implementation effort may unnecessarily add risk and cost. Focus your software selection on the most salient and concrete criteria gathered during your internal information gathering phase and which most directly supports your company’s most strategic business objectives.

Worst Practice: Demand Fixed Prices When You Don't Know What You Want

Negotiating software contracts is fraught with risk – paying too much, being unclear on SLAs, not defining what is to be delivered, phasing in the licenses as they are needed, etc. Most buyers only want to go through this procurement and negotiation process one time so they tend to try to lock-in a variety of contractual items to avoid revisiting them. This puts vendors and buyers in an awkward position of attempting to lock in fixed efforts and fees to unclear, variable or speculative future conditions. In the end, vendors feel compelled to protect themselves by cushioning their cost estimates to account for unknowns or lack of specificity. When it comes to pricing SaaS CRM, be sure that you have a well-defined scope that vendors understand and that really allows attainment of specific project goals. Make sure all costs are linked to the business case and timed relative to the implementation roll-out phases. Then, ensure that you clearly understand the most influential factors or triggers that result in the most dramatic changes to efforts and costs. If you know your needs go beyond common features, look past the mass market vendors to those that offer a greater degree of feature control through configuration of the core application. And when your needs demand custom components, look for vendors that have a track record of quickly and cost effectively delivering customizations and not bolt-on products that only partly deliver on your requirements. Recognizing your implementation environment sets the stage for open and candid discussion where scope and effort are quantitatively identified and pricing risk is reduced for both parties.

Best Practice: Stack Your Project Team With A-Players

There are few things more important than making sure your best and brightest people are directly involved in the SaaS CRM deployment. CRM provides the foundation for all customer interactions and imposes a degree of process discipline on sales, marketing, and service staff so that customer facing processes occur with consistency and predictable quality. If the CRM strategy and supporting software is the front line for customer acquisition and retention, it warrants the design and engineering of your most talented staff. While there’s a clear role for IT staff in both on premise and SaaS CRM projects, executive sponsorship should normally come from the business side and the design team must be stacked with business people. Look for people who think systemically and understand the need for process. The sales rep who hits quota every year through the depth of his relationships with clients may not be someone who will see the need for CRM and may therefore not be much help in process design. That’s not to say we circumvent this rep, instead we use him in a highly leveraged model where we get his input on the practices that make him effective and embed those techniques in the CRM.

Worst Practice: Automating Inefficient Business Processes

Let’s face it – few are satisfied that their sales, marketing, and service business processes are ideal. Implementing new software does not in and of itself upgrade existing business process effectiveness. The industry’s best CRM systems embed an enormous number of best practices that you can extend to your customer-facing operations. Be willing to revisit and upgrade your business processes where it makes sense to do so and resist the urge to change the software to accommodate business processes that could benefit from reengineering. Let’s take opportunity management as an example. Most CRM systems can systemically manage an opportunity through closure and embed some discipline on sales steps and probability of close to assist in forecast visibility and accuracy. But what if your company is like so many others and you have multiple types of sale opportunities. It rarely makes sense to force fit them into a lowest common denominator tracking mechanism as they move through different steps and track different data points. So, leverage the core of the CRM solution to define common elements and look for a CRM system that is flexible enough to allow you to track multiple opportunities on separate and purpose built forms. You cannot change what you sell without a reinvention of the firm, but you can change how you sell more readily to produce superior results.

Best Practice: Demand Reliability and Security

There are material differences among the methods and IT infrastructures used by SaaS CRM vendors which directly translate to varying levels of security and reliability. Many legacy client-server vendors have ported their products to pseudo web-based delivery platforms. While this approach may achieve some level of virtual operation in terms of delivering CRM software over the Internet, it does not promote reasonable performance via a browser, a multi-tenant underlying architecture or the advantages of a native SaaS solution. While pure-play SaaS vendors have built their systems from the ground-up for web-based delivery, some products were built to maximize economy for the vendor by requiring upgrades and security patches to be applied at inconvenient times. Demand the same or better level of security and reliability as you would demand form an on premise CRM system. Insist upon proven assurances and SLA guarantees which avoid system downtime or the unpleasant surprise from an audit report or a security breach. Leading SaaS manufacturers offer fully redundant data centers, high availability fail-over safeguards, proven business continuity preparedness and separation of your data from other customers.

Worst Practice: Believing That SaaS CRM Systems Administer Themselves

Again, the set it and forget it hype suggests that once your SaaS CRM is enabled, you put your feet up on the desk and look at a dashboard that summarizes your entire sales and service operation. SaaS CRM is like any other business application in that it requires continuous process improvement to achieve sustained business results. No CRM application offers a magical solution when companies are reorganized, territories are realigned, sales reps are reassigned, new products are introduced, business processes are reengineered or new information is required by the executive team. Similarly, as more data is loaded in the CRM, you can further leverage powerful business intelligence (BI) tools that are built into leading CRM systems to better analyze your operations. For example, integrated online analytical processing (OLAP) tools allow you to visually identify exceptions, spot trends and make adjustments to improve business processes. You might also consider a workflow enablement tool to automate routine tasks or drive increased business process automation.

Best Practice: Set The Expectation That SaaS CRM Systems Are Different Than On-Premise CRM Systems

While SaaS CRM systems offer many advantages, they can receive a cool initial reception from users who are accustomed to legacy (mainframe, mid-range, or client-server) customer management applications. This is only natural as these legacy systems encounter no Internet latency, don’t leverage web browsers for display and do not traverse your network’s security to connect to the outside world. End users need to be better prepared for the transition. We’re not saying they should expect less. Instead, they simply need to understand how on-demand CRM systems operate and be prepared for changes relative to the former environment.

Best Practice: Integrate CRM With Back Office Systems

Most CRM systems “stop” when a sale opportunity is closed. What a shame as the closure of the initial sale is where customer relationships begin to excel. Startlingly few on-demand CRM systems offer built-in sales order management, which is a natural connection to the ERP or accounting software system. Clients are faced with incremental expenses to buy more “add on” software or to incur the time and cost of system integration. Still other CRM systems offer robust order management and visibility to sales history as part of their core offerings. While back office integration may be a must-have, ensure that the product you select offers flexibility in configuration and a wide range of views to your customer data so you integrate only what is essential for seamless process flow. Whatever approach you choose, ensuring you extend the sales loop from sale opportunity to sale order processing will be appreciated by customers and sales reps alike.

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