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

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E-mail or Task threads

Classic workflow systems use tickets, transaction documents, or other explicit task assignments to manage the flow of work across the task owners. When a user completes a task, the ticket/document/task status is updated and the work moves on to the next person.

In some business processes -- particularly those involving knowledge workers or testing/measurement cycles -- the "next step" can't be known until the user completes the task. When the "next ticket" cannot be pre-undefined, the current worker needs to write up the specifics of the step for the subsequent worker. While the workflow system can assign a "write up the next step" task to that user, the meaningful assignment of work is really done by the users themselves. The details are often communicated by e-mail.

A variation of this issue occurs when task owners do not have system access (either because they don't log in often enough, or the company is trying to save on CRM license costs). Since it's inconvenient for these users to receive or update tasks within the system, e-mail -- the lingua franca of business -- is often a better way to notify users that they have action items.

In these situations, the workflow system should be used more as a reminder mechanism that manages deadlines, reminder e-mails, and metrics that track "who's got the ball." When business processes involve asynchronous activities and rework may be required (for example, drilling a well or passing a qualification test), a strict workflow system may just get in the way.

Status sequences

In all too many business processes -- particularly the early part of the sales cycle or the customer onboarding processes -- it is impossible to really know the exact sequence of steps. In the worst case, you have vague guidelines of what represents progress, rather than clear status indicators. Steps may happen out of order, in parallel, or out of your control. In these cases, any traditional workflow is overkill. All you really know is your belief about where the work is.

The classic examples of this are lead qualification in marketing and the prospecting/needs analysis phases of sales. In any CRM system, these are represented as status fields that are manually advanced according to the best judgment of the user. A given prospect can move forward or backward in the process at any time, and the semantics of each status may be highly debatable. While this is hardly the basis of a deterministic, efficient fairly represents the real world.

As these processes may be long-running (e.g., sales cycles of 9 months, customer onboarding of 9 weeks), it is essential to use workflow concepts even though you won't have a true workflow. In particular, leverage:

• Deadlines for action

• Metrics for "time in stage" and alerts for "too long"

• Alerts for regression (e.g., a deal moving out in time, backwards in stage, or down in value)

• Reports that highlight the work pipeline, particularly bottlenecks such as "training class full" or "no travel after week 11 of the quarter")

Even though we'd like all our business processes to follow consistent rules, sequences, and timelines, the real world is filled with activities that just don't. If you can, characterize everything as a business process -- so at least you have a model. But make sure to apply the right level of workflow discipline so you don't drive your users (or worse, your customers) bonkers with heavy-handed enforcement.

David Taber is the author of the new Prentice Hall book, " Secrets of Success" and is the CEO of SalesLogistix, a certified consultancy focused on business process improvement through use of CRM systems. SalesLogistix clients are in North America, Europe, Israel, and India, and David has over 25 years experience in high tech, including 10 years at the VP level or above.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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