Getting Started With CRM

So much of the reader feedback I hear centers upon the following questions: How do I get started with customer relationship management in my organization? What’s the optimal methodology? What’s the most reliable approach? Who offers the best solution? What’s the best training and certification program for designed and implementing CRM?

A category so vast and complex (e-marketing and campaign management, customer data warehouse mining and analysis, branding and customer experience design, sales force automation, call center and customer service) can be difficult to understand. There are many software vendors and professional services organizations all making claims about CRM and its impact on sales, profitability and productivity. No wonder many people are confused.

While there’s a tremendous amount of information about CRM strategy, process design and technology options to explore, there’s no single, clear authoritative source of how to design and implement a CRM system, much less engender and instill a customer-centered strategy or culture in an organization.

For better and for worse, CRM is still an art form, not a true science. That said, I’ve found three principles underlying the design and launch of the most successful CRM implementations:

  • 1. Explore all viable options that have potential for generating superior value, based on your company’s core competencies, relative to your competition.
  • 2. Select from these possibilities those that best meet your investment return, risk appetite, technical architecture (ease of implementation), organizational readiness and management talent, passion and commitment.
  • 3. Design and actively manage your CRM implementation strategy and plan.

Step 1: Explore all viable options

This step requires creative thinking. It might be the most readily achievable step, but perhaps the least fully explored.

The single greatest benefit of this first step is to avoid the common mistake of thinking that CRM is just about customer intimacy and loyalty, and rushing off to buy a software package which purports to do just that. The fact is that implementing a CRM strategy doesn’t always mean implementing CRM technology.

CRM is really about developing strategies and tactics that will enable you to achieve a competitive advantage — differentiate your product or service from the competition, enhance loyalty (lower attrition, customer acquisition costs), increase revenues (up sell, cross sell, market share), lower costs.

In my experience, I’ve seen clients achieve considerable improvements in customer service quality, market share and sales productivity without a single piece of new technology implemented. They were achieved strictly by thinking creatively, working more closely as a team and making tough decisions. The results were more compelling value propositions to customers, higher productivity and teamwork (less political in-fighting), more effective business process design, more careful alignment of incentives with desired customer-facing behaviors, and frankly, simply more enlightened and effective leadership.
In this brainstorming stage, it’s important to explore all your options and examine — at least on a high-level — what technologies, processes and organizational structures and skill sets can help you cost-effectively enable these strategies and tactics.

In terms of technology, most people assume that all CRM begins with a data management strategy — deciding what customer information can help you better understand and predict their individual interests, needs and buying behaviors — but your initial approach doesn’t have to be so data-centric.

Focused customer analysis and competitive intelligence can give you a pretty good idea of what customers want and are willing to pay for, which in turn should give you some good thoughts on exchanging your perceived value by adding convenience, features, and/or personalized self-service options to your offering.

This brainstorming exercise is best done by a multi-disciplinary task force — perhaps facilitated and/or augmented by a third party — to ensure a diversity of contributions and points of view. This step also requires a good deal of customer/market, organizational, supply chain and technical architecture research and assessment, which needs to be completed in preparation for the brainstorming task force sessions.

Step Two: Select the possibilities that best meet your investment return, risk appetite, technical architecture (ease of implementation), organizational readiness, and management talent, passion and commitment.

Of the three steps, this is perhaps the most politically difficult for an organization. While it’s relatively easy to generate ideas (in step one), it is much more difficult to decide which offer the greatest benefit (expected financial return, relative to ease of implementation).

This step requires making tough decisions and trade-offs, for there are many constraints and conflicts to be resolved: channel conflicts, training and staff resource issues, financial performance goals, and budget allocations. As such, this exercise can perhaps most effectively and efficiently be accomplished through an executive workshop, facilitated by a third party (outside consultant) or a mutually trusted and respected insider/advisor (perhaps a current or former board member).

Also, to the point of “management talent, passion and commitment.” This sounds drippy, but in fact it is perhaps the single most critical deciding factor to a successful implementation. If your management team doesn’t love CRM and isn’t good at it, all the software and consulting services in the world won’t make it work for you.

At the end of this step, you should have a very clean vision of what strategies and tactics will enable you to achieve a competitive advantage in your customer-facing systems and processes, and what their financial return will be if properly implemented and executed.

Step Three: Design and actively manage your CRM implementation strategy and plan.

While step two is politically the most tricky, step three is functionally the most difficult.

By implementation strategy I mean just that: you need a vision, goals and critical performance indicators. There are two basic strategies:

  • 1. The “go-big-and-fast” strategy in order to reap the greatest potential economic benefit (often advocated by the suppliers of enterprise CRM frameworks).
  • 2. The “go-small-and-slow” approach (which is the safer, and, in most cases, clearly the better way to go).

The go-big-and-fast strategy requires organizational readiness, architectural compatibility and business process flexibility that few businesses – much less mid-sized or large organizations – have. But some do. Also, the go-big-and-fast strategy works best in small organizations, or larger ones with a very strong, centralized commend structure – typically there’s a CEO who serves as the single, authoritative leader and calls all the shots.

In organizations with a more collaborative and/or decentralized command structure, the changes of success are much lower and require special measures. These include organizational, process design and technical architectural assessments and studies. In helping the organization evaluate the impact of the CRM implementation, these impact analyses help prepare the organization and build consensus among the key constituents within the groups affected by the change including: sales, marketing, customer service, finance, technology, operations, legal, etc.

The go-slow-and-small approach – hopefully the most prevalent methodology – takes its cue for the lessons learned in previous enterprise solution implementation disasters. Remember ERP (enterprise relationship planning)?

This approach begins with the belief that you can’t possibly know and anticipate all the technical, organizational, process and cultural problems inherent in any major change in doing business. So it’s best to pilot and test first, learn along the way, and pilot and test again. Until you get it right.

Lastly, in terms of managing the implementation, the best advice I have is to use proven program management methodology (project plans, timelines, schedule of deliverables) and ensure that the Program Management Office has the right resources and talent to do the job. Some organizations are creating a new position – Chief Customer Officer – to fulfill this role. Given the sad state of most CRM implementations, that seems like a pretty good idea.

If you’d like to respond to some of these points, or want to share information in regard to getting started on a CRM initiative, please write me at [email protected].

Arthur O’Connor is a leading expert on customer relationship management and customer-facing IT systems and strategies. He’s currently the national columnist for, an site, and this year serves as the chairperson of the Institute for International Research’s CRM Conference. Arthur has over 20 years leadership and management experience in the area of customer management, strategy and new business development, including 15 years as a senior corporate officer of two NYSE-listed inter national corporations, and over five years experience as an independent management consultant and Big 5 firm practice manager selling and managing large-scale IT engagements.