By Darron Walton, managing director of consulting specialist, De Villiers Walton

No matter how hard you try, without the right foundations, most customer relationship management (CRM) tools are destined to underachieve. Just as business users need quality information to effectively perform marketing activities and provide good customer sales and service, similarly the advanced functionality contained in most CRM systems can only be optimised if fundamental IT structures are in place, and the data that underpins the business processes has been implemented properly.

To achieve optimal results and return on investment in CRM implementations, a best-practice approach undoubtedly requires thorough and consistent IT and business strategy planning, good communication and a continual focus on the business’ needs and goals.

Back to basics
CRM projects are inherently different to traditional enterprise resource planning (ERP) projects. The fact that sales and marketing processes are inevitably more fluid than, say, manufacturing and financial accounting processes, places even greater emphasis on a combined business and technology approach to ensure all business requirements are fully addressed.

An intelligent approach to CRM deployment will consider all the fundamental elements of system design that underpin CRM while constantly evaluating how each element needs to support the business. Ignoring certain key considerations will prevent organisations from getting the true value out of the system.

Defining the organisational model in a way that truly represents the company’s approach to marketing, sales and service within the system, is a good starting point. Here, a partnership between business and CRM specialists is essential to ensure the resulting organisation model reflects reporting requirements, reporting lines, visibility restrictions and integration with back-end systems.

The need for customer information in CRM processes is well understood and, indeed, creating account and contact records is, typically, a simple task. Yet the straightforwardness of this task often hides something more important; the business agreement of what account and contact information is required by marketing, sales and service processes, and how this data needs to evolve as it is shared across the system landscape.

Before any enhancements or custom developments are planned, it is advisable to work closely with experienced specialists that have a clear understanding of both the business need and the CRM software being implemented or enhanced. This approach ensures enhancements are necessary, have a business case and can be supported going forwards.

A careful approach and strategy to user interface configuration is needed as any adjustments in this area demand a high-level of maintenance. For all of the above, the best approach will challenge the necessity of going beyond the standard, and only do so based on an understanding of the system architecture and business need being addressed. Getting ‘back to basics’ in this way allows work to be focused in the right areas.

The importance of good planning
A well-run project must be clearly defined, with realistic scope and business objectives determined in advance by both business users and the internal IT teams. However straightforward the project ambition, it is important to consider and seek consultation around the impact that these changes will have on the overall project to avoid re-work at a later stage. Neglecting to secure input from all relevant parties and focusing the project around a single objective can be detrimental to the project -and may ultimately lead to failure.

Once the project scope has been defined, the sequence of priorities will be agreed. It is vital that technology constraints are considered as part of this process to ensure critical foundations, such as new hardware, customer data design and so on, are delivered to support other deliverables. Again, discussions around these priorities must take place or the project may suffer at a later testing or build stage, when it is discovered that the dependencies and required hardware have not been factored in.

Business first
While most organisations inevitably want to go-live as soon as possible in order to begin realising the associated benefits of CRM, this approach can lead to unintended consequences. Good planning will help avoid these pitfalls by highlighting the impact of the approach.

A well-planned project considers all aspects of the project — not just those related to the technology. For example, a project team that is solely focused on realising the technical solution as quickly as possible may be unable to effectively support the key business users. The unintended consequence of this can quickly become poor acceptance of the solution within the business because the core users have not been supported in adjusting to the new system.

Make it personal
CRM is used in different ways by different users. To optimise user performance, the user interfaces should be configured to support and enforce business process by considering the tasks that are required to perform a particular job function. Determining the optimal number of configurations is a key task that should be performed by a specialist who understands how to maximise user adoption while minimising the effort to build and maintain the different configurations.

The broad range of business processes supported by a modern CRM system require a significant amount of information to ensure they are integrated across the enterprise and the necessary business intelligence can be gleaned from the subsequent reporting. Burdening end users with the task of providing this information does not make for an efficient process.

Fortunately, a lot of information can be automatically derived using predefined business rules and contextual information about the task being performed and the person performing it. Significantly, determining the information required to function has the benefit of freeing-up users to serve customers. Yet this undoubtedly requires experience in optimising CRM systems and processes, for example by making the most of the organisational model or customer-specific enhancements.

While it is undoubtedly good news for businesses that advancements in CRM usability and functional support have been made, they are not a substitute for good groundwork and their effect will be redundant if the supporting system basics are not in place.

Question the boundaries
Planning is crucial, but an intelligent CRM implementation also involves challenging perceptions throughout a project. In the IT department, for example, there is often a reluctance to agree to anything that cannot be achieved within the standard functionality of the proposed CRM system.

Essentially, there is nothing wrong with implementing a standard CRM system, as long as all parties understand what this system will give them - and are happy that this fits the project mandate. Problems can arise when enhancing the standard system without understanding exactly what needs to be enhanced and why. Attempting to rebuild existing systems and processes into SAP CRM or forging ahead with unrealistic or aspirational ideals are examples of failing to question the boundaries and often results in an implementation failing to live-up to expectations.

The relationship between the various parties involved in a CRM project is critical. The business teams, internal IT department and vendor all bring different expertise and knowledge and need to communicate clearly to avoid problems.

Business teams need to make key, and no doubt busy, resources available and trust the IT department and vendor to understand their business need. Similarly, the IT department and the vendor need to understand that the business is the customer — technology is an enabler after all — and be able to articulate how the proposed solution meets the business need.

A well-run project will take an accurate understanding of the genuine underlying business requirements obtained from a business and IT workshop and translate them into the CRM solution.

Smarter systems need better data
CRM and business intelligence (BI) systems are intrinsically linked. Without good underlying data, there is little or no chance of achieving good business intelligence, which makes it even more crucial to ensure that the quality of the data in the CRM system is good by implementing clear data management strategies and reducing the amount of unnecessary or duplicated records which may be clogging up the system.

Additionally, it is important to establish single, up-to-date records that are available company-wide to prevent customers being irritated by basic inaccuracies and users being held back in their work by poor data.

Expect change
There is no escaping the fact that, as one of the business-critical systems for the organisation, establishing or evolving CRM is a complex process that must incorporate a multitude of considerations.

Consider how many points of contact exist between an organisation and its customers across marketing, sales and service processes - and how many existing applications support those processes. Defining and agreeing the rules of engagement across these channels and processes and then migrating data from existing systems is more complicated than many organisations anticipate.

Despite what some vendors may imply, implementing CRM remains a complex change management process and, no single solution for opportunity management, for example, will present a fast-track to an explosion in sales. The secret to optimising CRM therefore lies in intelligent deployment; making use of the elements that work for the business - and ignoring those which don’t.