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By Graeme Freeman, co-founder and director, Freeman Clarke

While few question the benefits of CRM systems, CRM rollouts are the classic IT failures. A quick trawl of the Internet suggests that 50% or more of such projects bomb. Among SMEs, the failure rate may be even higher. While it is important for SMEs to streamline customer management, what can you do to buck this trend?

So often CRM projects begin with Googling “CRM” and trying work out what might be the best system for your company. While there are now many good CRM packages for SMEs, this stage is often where the trouble starts. CRM companies will sell you a dream: just install this and everything will be fine. Experience shows the reality is quite different, and while vendors’ sometimes inflated promises do not help, the reasons for failure often lie within the organisation itself.

First, sales and marketing teams – who own the organisation’s customers – are generally preoccupied with reaching sales targets. Implementing new processes therefore is rarely a top priority. We also often find that individuals resist sharing and like to think of their leads and customer data as their own.

Second, since CRM means different things to different people, defining the scope of a CRM system is a challenge. One consequence is that what starts as a simple means for storing customer data often gradually expands to include sales forecasting, returns, field service management and more. Product vendors love this ‘creep’, of course, but it is one of main reasons for failure.

Finally, because CRM projects are often ill-defined, it is hard to get potential users’ buy in. To them, it may feel like a lot of hard work on their part for something that will ultimately only benefit management.

Successful CRM projects must start with:

  • Ownership and participation from the top
  • A clear scope of what is and what is not part of the project
  • A firm understanding of the required outputs and the benefits
  • A detailed view of how the system will be used, by whom, and who will make it happen.

So, forget the technology for a minute and ensure you take the following five steps:

  1. Start by appointing someone from senior management to be personally accountable for the project
  2. Clarify the purpose and scope of the project, including what information you want out of the new system and what this will be used for
  3. Communicate this to everyone involved in a way that will get them engaged – for instance, by showing how it will help the business grow, or lighten employees’ workloads
  4. Work out what changes will be needed beyond implementing the CRM package. This may be procedural changes, training or even changing attitudes
  5. Assign responsibility for monitoring usage – lazy habits like using Post-Its and spreadsheets can easily creep back in – and for ensuring that the CRM system is continuously reviewed to make sure its outputs remain useful over time.

Critically, with CRM, the project never ends – and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise!