10 dirty secrets of CRM

CRM vendors cash in on your hopes for revenue, profitability and collaboration. And it's all true … except for the parts that they leave out. Here are some truths that they won't share but you should understand.

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CRM products have been around for nearly 30 years, and the SaaS vendors have been selling their CRM wares for nearly two decades. Despite all that experience, powerful myths and misconceptions about CRM still catch customers by surprise.

Author's note: While much of this article's advice applies to any CRM system, I've focused on the specifics of SaaS systems, such as Salesforce CRM.

Without further ado, here are some dirty secrets that CRM vendors won't share but you should understand.

1. The CRM system is less important than the data it holds. Even with all the fanciest bells, whistles and 3D dashboards, a CRM system without a serious amount of accurate data inside is just an empty shell. Of course, the CRM vendor demo will be marvelous, but don't be hypnotized by features and CRM functionality. Instead, fixate on what it will take to fill the system up with credible, accurate data. This means you have to focus on your users, their work habits, their natural workflow, and the incentives you put in place.

2. User adoption and percentage-of-business represented are the only metrics of CRM system success. There's a virtuous cycle in CRM systems: the more users adopt the system, the more data will be entered. The more credible and meaningful the CRM data, the more valuable an asset it is for all users. The more valuable the asset, the easier it is to get more users leveraging, and contributing to, the system. Even if some users become spectacularly effective thanks to CRM usage, if you only have pockets of usage most of your customer situations won't be represented in the database. As a result, you won't have a 360-degree view of the customer relationship. Broad usage is more valuable to overall collaboration than deep but spotty use of the system.

3. You will probably have to spend a bundle on data quality. Even if you're doing a greenfield implementation of CRM, you will discover data quality problems that are irritants to every user and poisonous to the system's overall credibility. Data quality needs to be attacked at three levels:

  • Never let data, whether an initial migration or a subsequent import, into the system without cleaning it up first.
  • Spot sources of data pollution and systematically correct them. There are some automation and tools that will help, but budget for a data steward who both knows about the meaning of data entries and cares about quality. In CRM, there’s no such thing as self-healing data.
  • Identify business processes and interfaces that corrupt the semantics of CRM data. Your team may be causing subtle but important changes to the meaning of data. In particular, watch out for business processes that span departments with different definitions, objectives, metrics, or incentives (think: sales vs. marketing vs. support).

4. A siloed system is a CRM in name only. Nearly any interesting CRM system must give users access to data that's beyond the purview of the CRM data they enter. This means that integration is essential, and integration projects are often harder and more expensive than the initial CRM project. Furthermore, integration almost always exposes data problems that were hidden or tolerable in a siloed system.

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