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CRM 10 Commandments

As we counted down to 2008 at a neighbor’s house in candlelight and to home made acoustical melodies (the power went out due to a wayward reveler encountering a utility pole just before midnight), we weren’t totally certain whether we had the exact moment captured. But, we were probably within a minute of crossing into the New Year along with everyone else in our time zone. This entry into 2008, if imprecise, marked a big milestone for me, which I have been spending some time pondering as I change the calendar from December to January.

In 1998 I began my focus on CRM, although at the time it was more through the momentum of customer demand more than a conscious and intentional decision. It became more intentional two years later when I joined my current company, Innoveer Solutions, which specializes exclusively in CRM and is also celebrating its 10th anniversary.

In that 10 year span I think I have learned more than in any other 10 year span in my three decades as a professional. The industry has also gone through an amazing learning process as well. What we have learned includes the fact that it is possible that CRM can drive your business to be more successful. Plus, I have seen research that declares, and I firmly believe, that CRM is one of the three most effective means for improving business success. Either way, I have come to the conclusion that this is not just a passing management fad like so many I have encountered in the past 30 years as a student of the organization.

Most important, I have learned some seriously important things about CRM that I think it would be useful to share. Yes, I am audaciously calling these the 10 CRM Commandments, but, no, I did not just watch a Cecil B. DeMille epic. And while I don’t expect these to be picked up by Letterman for a Top 10 spot, I think it would be great for them to be passed around, so please feel free. Here goes.

Sangre de Cristo

10) CRM is not technology
This confusion has gotten more folks into trouble than any other issue related to the whole CRM movement. Often at the heart of a CRM program is both the need to solve complex and dicey organizational problems and achieve big time results. Technology virtually never has the ability to do this independently. It requires strategic planning, process change, people change, sometimes culture change, and a lot of hard work in making the technology support all the changes.

Too many have attempted to solve the problems and get the big results with attention paid just to the technology implementations. All of those infamous programs are what contributed to the 80% CRM failure rate that we so proudly acknowledge about our past in this industry.

9) You have to define success
Some CRM pundits like to declare that CRM is all about customer centrism. I suggest that there are three categories of possible success – growth, efficiency, and customer value. If you want to pursue customer value as your primary outcome, then you need for your CRM program to be all about customer centrism. However, if you are looking for growth or efficiency, you may need to consider other philosophies. Sometimes those philosophies conflict with customer centrism, but they can still be very effective.

No matter which you choose, you do have to choose. You absolutely must have a target for what your CRM program is attempting to achieve. Otherwise your program is going to meander all over the place and waste a lot of time and money before somebody pulls the plug on you.

8) How you build it is just as critical as what you build
This commandment is all about change management, which deserves much more than the few lines entered here. Change management, my first area of expertise, is an entire management discipline unto itself. CRM programs almost always introduce massive amounts of organizational change, and to the degree that is also almost always under estimated. The way that the change is handled is just as much of a factor in success as the change itself.

Poor communication, insufficient involvement, lack of sponsorship, and under-funded training lead to disasters (that 80% statistic comes back into play here). I have heard some experts state that success in this space is 10% what and 90% how. I don’t know what the correct ratio is, but I do know that the how is largely misjudged within too many CRM programs.

By the way, don’t believe what they tell you. Size matters. This is so important that it almost warrants an 11th Commandment. If you try to build your CRM capability in a way that takes on too much, too fast, you also run a lot of risk. The old aphorism that proposes that the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time is more valid within CRM than perhaps anywhere. Small steps tend to reduce the potential for problems, help the organization assimilate changes, and improve chances for success. Keeping projects small and contained works, and starting a CRM program with short projects that deliver quick wins works even better.

7) CRM must be driven by the business, not IT
I don’t win popularity contests with my technology colleagues because of this commandment, but it is the truth. CRM is a business strategy (see #10) and business strategies are better managed by the core business functions rather than staff functions. Certainly the technology function must have a place at the table, and it must also manage key aspects of CRM programs. However, the business has to own and drive the program, largely because of the significance of the decision making involved and the degree of organizational change required for success.

6) Management buy-in is step one
The research shows that management support of a solid CRM strategy is the number one predictor of CRM program success. I suppose this is confusing since I have positioned it as number 6 on the list. I don’t have any strong rationale for this, just think it fits squarely in the middle of this list – permit me some literary license on this one. But don’t misinterpret my action here because this is big stuff. You have to have the management team on board or you are sitting on a doomed exercise. And, I am not talking about tacit agreement here, we mean visible and active sponsorship.

I cannot tell you how many CRM programs I have encountered that have run aground on this issue. What I have learned is that people do what the boss wants done. And if a critical mass of the bosses do not truly want to do CRM, it is not going to happen.

5) The user has to be served, not just management
So, the corollary to Commandment #6 is that it is not sufficient to have your management team on board, you also have to get your users on board. Where this typically goes wrong is in design. Yes, Commandment #8 does state that we have to do things to help users get past the normal resistance to change. However, many CRM programs are designed in a way that the best change management capability on the planet could not save it from the CRM dumpster.

When you build your CRM program to only satisfy management objectives, you virtually ensure that users will be against the program. What typically happens is that CRM becomes a mechanism for policing and monitoring the business and does not focus on supporting individual performance. Information is gathered and analyzed on the backs of the user, but they get nothing in return. After about 8 months of struggle nobody gets anything in return because the poor adoption leads to lack of confidence in the numbers. Reports have to be produced redundantly and all of sudden the CRM system is obsolete.

4) Adoption comes through relevance and meaning
One more corollary commandment is focused on what it takes to get adoption. If you buy into #5, this is the one that looks at how to pull it off. CRM only works for the user if what they get out of the system is information that is relevant to their job, and has meaning for what they need to be successful. If you have trouble locating your customer information or if you have trouble determining what action you should take based on what you do find, then CRM is not serving you well. When this happens repeatedly, you will find other ways to get what you need. This is relevance and meaning. Without it, the CRM fruit will whither on the vine.

3) Customization is evil
Going back to the technology part of the CRM equation, one of the loudest sirens on the rocks is the call to modify the software to better fit what you believe are your unique requirements. Do you truly believe your business is unique? There are times when my clients get offended when I ask this question. Over the last 30 years I have worked with an amazing array of varying companies and a huge number of different industries.

While I acknowledge there are critical differences with business models across these different industries, you must understand that the number of similarities is astounding. Most software companies have been experimenting and writing code for years to solve the exact problems you are trying to overcome. They have invested millions on their packages and collectively billions in the CRM industry. Most have encountered every best practice on their way to their most recent release. Do you really believe you need to modify what they have done? There is a higher probability that modifying your process to fit what they have built will lead to success faster than customizing the code to fit the way you do things today.

But, why is customization evil? You are changing the software in a way that will make you pay. You pay to customize it (more than you estimate), then you pay to keep it working, then you pay more to upgrade it, then you are held for ransom when the software changes so much that your version becomes obsolete and you have to start over again or live with what you have unsupported. I have seen companies paralyzed with this situation for years before they cut their losses. My recommendation is that if you believe you need to customize build a very solid business case before proceeding. Then, try to find someone to talk you out of it.

2) If data is not actionable, do not capture it
For most companies, CRM must satisfy a complex set of business requirements that span multiple business functions. These circumstances typically lead to a myriad of stakeholders all asking for specific customer data elements to be captured. The tendency is to attempt to satisfy everyone. This is normal, but it leads to an undesirable end state – more data is collected in the CRM system than is utilized. This leads to a spiraling set of problems: users can’t find anything, performance is slow, navigation is cumbersome and the whole thing becomes unpleasant.

The Second Commandment is all about not capturing information because somebody’s cousin thinks it might be useful to have at some point. If you don’t plan to act on it shortly after it is entered, leave it out. When I examine those customers who are unhappy with their CRM results, I see a majority of them who have tried to satisfy too many requests for nice to have information. If you fit in that group, go on a data diet.

1) Expect the rules to change
At some point in the fall of 2001 the dotcom bust started in earnest. Seven years later, business on the internet is being conducted on a magnitude that few at the turn of the millennium could have ever imagined. More importantly the rules for how business was conducted in 2000 are very different from how they appear today. I believe that the other 9 Commandments are pretty steadfast. But the First Commandment is all about not expecting things to stay the same for very long.

Just when you think you have the management of customer interactions figured out, a wrinkle will appear. For example, too many of my clients don’t have a web strategy – they have not accepted that this is a channel that they must use to reach customers. Their focus is on field sales, the call center and maybe marketing. These are the certain customer interaction points that have to be managed.

I believe to be successful with CRM you have to pay close attention to the topics raised in the other 9 items on this list. Then you need to keep a lookout for what is changing. There is a pretty good chance that something that you think is certain, no longer is.


Very good sensible advice, reminds me of the quote that the only problem with common sense is that it is uncommon.

Especially good to see the point 'Customization is evil'.

Not many people understand this! Someone once said customisation is like trying to add a third wing to a jumbo jet and expecting it to fly!


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