How to Select a CRM System

April 01, 2015

By Oren Smilansky
Whether it's your first solution or your fourth, these tips will help make the vendor selection process easier.

It is widely understood that CRM systems can serve as vital tools for companies of all sizes and industries. The ability to capture, track, and share relevant customer data can bolster revenue, enhance productivity, cut costs, and, if used correctly, improve a customer's relationship with—and perception of—a company. But for all its advantages, CRM implementation and maintenance also call for hefty financial commitments. And while many firms will elect to put a system in place eventually, they shouldn't jump the gun on the issue by acting too quickly.

To uncover some strategies for selecting the right CRM system, CRM spoke to several industry experts, some of whom presented on related issues at our past CRM Evolution conferences. We asked them to weigh in on the issue with some advice for those selecting their first—or just a new—CRM solution.

Ensure CRM Readiness

1. Conduct honest internal evaluations.

It might be tempting for one company to mimic the behaviors of another with the hopes that it will produce a similar success story, but that's not necessarily the best idea. "Each company needs to figure out which questions will lead to future business," Lior Arussy, president of Strativity Group, points out. "There is no such thing as best CRM practices, or a one-size-fits-all CRM. Each company has [its] own unique relationships."

For this reason, it's important that each company start internally. "One of the first things that an organization needs to do is establish an internal process and a structure or committee for evaluating [its] internal capabilities," Danny Estrada, CRM practice director at Net@Work, says.

A company that does not adequately prepare for its initial transition into CRM use is in for complications down the line. If the right amount of time isn't set aside at the outset to figure out what areas need the most attention and correction, the result can be regret and frustration at not having taken the time to determine which needs are most pressing. Eric Pozil, president of CRM Northwest, a software selection consulting firm, refers to this as "CRM readiness." Being especially careful in these opening stages is vital, he says, because in many cases, companies will invest in a CRM system thinking they're signing up for one thing and discover, only when it's too late, that they require something else.

One of the common tools used to accurately assess the reality of the organization's objectives and current position is a scorecard, which Pozil and other consultants consider indispensable. "When I did a lot of work with companies figuring out which CRM [solution] to get, we'd focus on what was and wasn't working," Jim Berkowitz, technology consultant at CRM Mastery, says. "I'd use a survey where I would get all the customer-facing [members of the company] to provide feedback on each process area, like lead generation, awareness and marketing, or sales management [and other processes]. The value is trying to uncover what isn't working very well from a process standpoint and then specifically using your CRM system to facilitate that process. It gives [you] direction." While this advice is important to beginners looking to install their first system, it can also be helpful to those who are working with what they already have in place. This way, they can figure out what elements of the current system are worth keeping, if possible, and which areas are problematic.

2. Involve every relevant department.

Berkowitz notes that it's important to involve members from every relevant department in the evaluation process. This enables them to provide early input, which, experts agree, promotes early adoption. Companies should get input from marketing, customer service, sales (who tend, like it or not, to be the most dominant voice, he points out), and any other segments of the company that will be using the system. If this step is skipped, members of specific teams might resist using a solution. "If technology is forced on people for whatever reason—by IT, or by any means," he says, "there's always the danger that it's not going to be accepted."

Pozil recommends comprehensive and involved analysis. When working on scorecards, he suggests, it's best to draw from the most varied pool of feedback providers possible to get a rounded sense of what the company needs on a grand scale. "You're not just looking at the CRM system," he says. "The majority of the value comes from talking to the individuals at different levels."

A detailed report will reveal what areas need the most immediate attention. With this knowledge, project leaders can focus on solutions and processes that will improve them.

3. Be mindful of your company's size and industry.

There are a number of challenges that enterprises of all sizes should anticipate when developing their platforms. Though the risks of failure are much greater for larger enterprises, they are also at an advantage in certain undeniable ways.

"[The] biggest challenges are not in the Fortune 100 [companies], because they have more resources and educated people, and are more likely to lean on consulting firms. [They are also more willing] to be honest about things that they're not experts at," Estrada says. "It's the Fortune 1,000 [companies] that struggle. The smallest companies are the ones that struggle the most because while [many of them are] looking for a kind of plug-and-play, they're also less resistant to actually conforming to the standard processes in these technologies."

But regardless of their pride in preserving idiosyncratic corporate personalities, smaller companies are also in a trickier spot when it comes to selecting vendors, Berkowitz says. Those that are smaller tend to not have as many processes in place. Though small and medium businesses may evolve into bigger entities over time, it's hard for them to assess what that evolution is going to look like. As a result, many of these companies choose less sophisticated solutions. "Not every company is at the stage where a real CRM [system] that can do a lot of things is effective," Berkowitz says.

Companies should also be conscious of their industry. Today, more CRM vendors are building industry-specific solutions to cater to each market's unique needs. For example, a local or state government might refer to the people it serves as constituents or citizens, instead of customers or prospects. Additionally, features and functionality that might be relevant for one industry might not apply to another.

4. Know your customers' expectations.

According to Estrada, if a company understands the engagements its customers have with the organization, as well as what type of experiences they expect, it can determine which processes to place at the top of its priority list.

"A company doesn't need to have a great mobile implementation if all of its contact center people are sitting in a chair eight hours a day. They...need almost [nothing] from a mobile perspective. Managers might need [mobile solutions] because they move around the office throughout the day. They might need dashboards and things like that, but the average people [don't]."

On the contrary, if salespeople are out in the field, you need to know if they need analytics, customer purchase history, or product information. It's important to understand what they need in their hands.

A customer might prefer to communicate with an agent online rather than via telephone. But in any case, that customer would still expect the agent to have on hand the same information regarding his purchase history that a phone agent would have. If a company understands what the customer expects during engagements, it will better be able to select the processes to focus on, thus creating more pleasant experiences.

Work with the Right Vendor

5. Research as much as possible.

In the early days of CRM, it was harder to find product information and reviews publicly. Fortunately, those days are long gone. Companies have more information at their disposal than before. In addition to free, publicly available information and reviews, organizations can purchase analyst reports. But perhaps the best way to research a CRM vendor, consultants suggest, is to ask vendors for customer references—and call them.

Fortunately many vendors have taken on more responsible and communicative roles with their customers, providing comprehensive guidance and training when needed.

3CLogic, a cloud contact center solution provider, operates entirely through Amazon Web Services. The company holds that to prepare clients for an implementation, it sometimes needs to meet with them. "We...focus on what it is [the company is] trying to accomplish, and what the parameters of that goal are," Robert Killory, chief innovation officer at 3CLogic, says. "So, for example, if they've got a good CRM system and they like it, but they're not using it to its fullest, we'll sit down with them and go through the business objectives." After understanding a customer's objectives, a vendor such as 3CLogic tries to figure out what technology may be added, as well as what could potentially improve the success or profitability of the company.

Guillaume Seynhaeve, marketing director of 3CLogic, adds that the company tries to understand what makes each customer unique, and how to mold its solution to the customer to achieve the desired end goals. "[We try to do that] without necessarily having to force them to change any business processes that have either worked for them or have been in place for so long that it could be damaging to undo them."

Working closely with the vendor certainly has its pluses, and there might be more companies can do on their own to bolster their CRM systems than they could have done five years ago. However, there is a lot to gain from turning to industry professionals, such as independent consultants. Since consultants have worked with various clients, the insight they've accumulated allows them to extrapolate what they've learned from those other companies' mistakes—or successes.

Maintain Your System

It's suggested not only that companies prepare properly for the initial selections and implementations, but also that they monitor the system with regular scheduled maintenance and other forms of consultation. This way, they can influence growth in the long run and make it less likely that they will have to replace the systems they've invested in. There are several steps to take in this process:

6. Set reasonable goals and expectations.

It's important to keep in mind that a CRM system is just a tool, not the ultimate answer. "So whenever people are looking to make things better, it always comes back to how [they are] doing things now. Where are the bottlenecks? What's taking you too long to do? Where are you unhappy with the user experience? The more you get into these things, the more you uncover opportunities," Berkowitz says

Businesses are advised to take a gradual approach to evolving their platform, setting two to three goals at a time, and conducting regular checkups.

Granted, there are some reasonable expectations that companies should have for their CRM system. For instance, employees should be able to use it wherever they wish, and they should expect that it will improve their work activity in some way. It should fit with their work style, and customers should be able to get help easily.

7. Don't give up just yet.

Even if the selection and implementation processes go smoothly, companies shouldn't think that operations are going to be seamless from the get-go. Even for those who are happy with their systems, a number of challenges are likely to come up along the way. This is no surprise, since customer expectations are constantly evolving, and CRM systems need to keep evolving with them. "No one's going to stand still with where they are on their current CRM platform and stay successful," Estrada says.

While Pozil points out that there are certainly cases where shareholders blame the technology for failing them, most of the time the issue is that there was something that came up after the fact that influenced how useful the technology was to the company. He calls these "deal breakers," mishaps no one could have anticipated. Fortunately, the steps outlined above can be applied to amend such problems.

8. But if all else fails...

Though it's an uncommon situation, it might be the case that a company is forced to reconfigure its entire platform. But this conclusion should be reached logically, following careful consideration.

Fortunately, all hope is not lost for companies that decide to abort ship, experts suggest. If a company has done enough preparation to begin with, the replacement process shouldn't be terribly difficult, Estrada says. "Once that determination [to wipe a system] is made, a company needs to decide how it's going to proceed from an overall perspective," he says. One question larger businesses might ask is whether or not each business unit will need to implement its own separate CRM system. "You need to decide [whether this is going to be a holistic overhaul]. Is it going to be a centralized perspective on CRM and deal with the individual business units as an extension of the core CRM, or [is it going to treat each] individual business unit essentially as its own implementation?"

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