Is Your CRM Business Process Really a Workflow?

"If you can't describe what you are doing as a business process, you don't know what you are doing." -- W. Edward Deming

CRM systems offer workflows, approval processes, and other business process enforcement features. But it's not always clear which feature you should use, and overly strict enforcement mechanisms cause big user satisfaction problems.

Business processes in some parts of a business may be water-tight, with strict policies and mechanistic task sequences. But not all business processes are strictly sequential or deterministic, and in some parts of a CRM application the workflows need to be very flexible. Particularly during the sales cycle, there are just too many important steps that your people cannot control. So let's examine some example business processes to illustrate the relevant CRM features and implementation approaches.

Approval Processes

These are the classic strict workflows that typically involve controls, document updates, timeouts, approvals, escalation, and delegation. Business examples of these include order configuration, quoting, credit checks, special contractual terms, order fulfillment, customer support escalation, and subscription renewals. In CRM, most of these examples are focused on the order close and fulfillment areas of the sales process.

While some of these business processes really do require a tightly controlled series of steps, there are situations where variation is required. A key indicator of the need for variance will be frequent requests for: administrative override of thresholds; cancellation and restart of a "cloned" instance of the business process; requests to unlock records; and re-routing of exceptions. Whether or not those variance requests are granted, they need to be recorded so that analysts can troubleshoot that area of the business process. If there are a significant number of legitimate variance requests, the approval process may need to have more elaborate branches (with more subtle branching criteria), or may need a complete redesign.

Workflows and Trigger Sequences

In some cases, however, the real issue is that an approval process is just too rigid. It may be sufficient to have a series of workflows or triggers daisy-chained together to achieve a more loosely-coupled desired business process. (Note that in Salesforce.com as well as other CRM systems, workflows and triggers should not be intermingled on the same object, as this can cause race conditions or endless loops.)

Using a series of workflows to replace a formal approval process allows bypasses that let the business process proceed even if an explicit approval step has been delayed. The need for this is common in customer support and service processes. For example, if your replacement-part ordering business process requires a credit check prior to shipping, the workflow can allow the order to be kitted and put into a credit-hold area of the distribution center so it's ready to ship the instant the credit check is complete. Adding this flexibility to your workflows can increase order velocity even when approvals are delayed.

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