In 1999, I joined a small but growing technology company selling a new category of software called “Customer Relationship Management”. We worked hard to describe how this new bit of kit would transform how companies worked, increasing revenue, and cutting costs all while delighting customers. It sounded wonderful: the promised land of sales, marketing, and service leveraging the power of the “information superhighway”*. (Yes, that was part of the messaging — it was 1999!)
Just a few short years later, after some implementations had gone live, we found ourselves developing resources to coach potential customers on how to successfully implement our software. “Ten Steps for A Successful CRM Implementation” and the like.
You see, word was getting around that these transformative projects didn’t always live up to their billing. Some, it was believed, were just colossal wastes of money. Not entirely surprising, as it was a new way of working and being. Not every organization would be ready to implement a CRM. Some might need a little hand-holding, right?
CRM implementations frequently fail, even today
Imagine my shock when I recently read that consulting firms like Forrester and Gartner reported that up to 50% of CURRENT CRM implementations fail — that is, CRM implementations in 2022, not 1999. In fact, some companies have had two or three initiatives fail. WHAT? HOW? WHY?
Despite lots of best practice white papers out there, my guess is that most people just don’t think it will happen to them. Organizations read white papers about change management and fostering a CRM culture and ignore the advice contained within.
When a company gets burned (or feels they’ve been burned) by a CRM implementation, it can make them gun-shy and suspicious of trying again. They’ve just set a pile of money on fire; why should they risk setting another pile of money on fire?
Fortunately, costly mistakes can be avoided. There are some key situations where if you see it happening, you just know that the CRM implementation will fail. Let me take you through the biggies, especially for organizations implementing a CRM to upgrade their sales process.
1. Leading from the front lines: Have senior company leaders fully bought in to CRM implementation?
If senior leadership won’t commit to using the CRM themselves — DAILY — it will fail. When leaders expect that the sales team will use a CRM, but want their own process to stay exactly the same, it’s a sign the company isn’t ready to implement change yet.
When leaders come into their sales funnel review meetings, laptops open and ready to engage, CRM implementation projects succeed. These leaders are ready to have conversations with their sales team and adjust their own workflows to leverage the strength of a CRM.
This does a couple things. It sends a message to the sales team that what happens in the CRM matters. It isn’t just a control panel. It’s a system where teams across the company can work together to add value to their processes.
It also leads the cultural charge. If leaders buy into the system, other departments are less likely to wonder why they have to change their processes. It diminishes calls of hypocrisy and demonstrates to staff that the CRM is no mere exercise — it’s part of the business moving forward.
2. Demonstrating value: Focus on what will make your processes better
Make sure as part of the implementation you aren’t just replicating existing processes in a new way. Find pain points that can be automated, dispensed with, or made better. Anything to make the pain of learning a new way the better, easier path to take.
Focus relentlessly on these benefits in your change management communications — and make sure they are actually benefits. If you haven’t pinpointed where tangible improvements can be made, and are just planning a like-for-like replacement, pause and re-consider. A CRM implementation should be strategic, not off-the-cuff.
3. Start on the right foot: It’s all about data
Before you begin implementing a CRM, formulate a plan to extract important customer data from your current system. Cleanse it, regularize it, and enrich it.
Crap input equals crap output. If you have issues with data integrity, thoroughness, or structure in your current sales process, don’t carry those issues forward. A bad first impression will last long in the memory and inhibit uptake and usage straight out of the gate.
4. Chaos is the enemy: Plan for a manageable implementation
No one can know and plan for everything all at once. Maybe the good folks at NASA can — that level of preparation, design, engineering, training and trouble-shooting would make most projects cost and time prohibitive. There is a reason NASA plans on decades-long timelines.
Instead, be OK with planning a CRM adoption path in discrete chunks. Pick a business unit, process, or market segment, and plan to make an impact there.
You need to articulate a vision and a goal set that is company-wide — just don’t try to implement it all at once. Start with a more manageable project in terms of scope, users, customization needs, etc. Work on making that a very successful project, then check it off and move on to the next discrete chunk.
You can discover a lot of the speedbumps and gotchas while not stopping the entire business from performing while you fix them. When that team starts raving about the improvements they feel in their daily work lives, you’ll have an internal set of cheerleaders to help pave the way forward for other groups.
CRM Implementation: The bottom line
There are many more things that every experienced CRM project manager may be planning and preparing for, but these are the biggest considerations that can nearly guarantee success.
Every single time I am asked if CRM is a good idea, the answer is YES. Almost any size of company will benefit. What you need to do is avoid framing CRM implementation as merely procuring the right software. It isn’t.
Procuring software without planning for how your people and processes will change to focus on collaborating across sales, marketing, and service will almost always result in a wasted investment. Why not instead take the time and make the effort to ensure that your investment supports your employees and delights your customers?
Fun note: a small upstart competitor we all thought would soon fail was leveraging the power of something called “The Cloud”. Oh, how we laughed. That company, Salesforce, is now the largest CRM company ever. My old company became an add-on for Oracle’s ERP software.
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