By Mark Carter, Head of Marketing, EMEA, Maximizer Software

For more than 25 years Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems have been helping businesses increase revenues, generate high quality leads, raise productivity and delight customers. CRM is now firmly established as an essential component in the standard suite of business software for entrepreneurs, small businesses and large organisations.

Yet, a surprisingly high percentage of CRM implementations fail to produce the expected results and ROI, are delivered over-budget, late, not to specification or at the extreme, are even abandoned completely. Here are some tips to stack the odds on favour of success.

1. Have a clear idea of what you want

Don’t put the cart before the horse and evaluate software before working out what business problems you are trying to solve. Clarify, define and document exactly the business goals you want your customer relationship management system to deliver. Do you want to optimise your sales process, enhance and track your marketing initiatives, improve customer service or all three? Ideally these objectives should be specific, measurable and realistic. This is also a good opportunity to evaluate and document your existing business processes and the quality of your existing data.

2. Appoint a champion

A CRM project needs a strong champion with full, active and continuous, commitment from the management team. Ideally, the champion should be a business leader rather than someone from IT – CRM is a major business initiative, not a technology initiative.

The champion will need to create and manage a CRM implementation plan and budget, with a specific schedule of events for deploying the chosen solution. It is essential that personnel – especially key users like sales people – are able to see real value in the CRM system and that its benefits are communicated properly.

4. Get buy-in

The three chief components for CRM success are people, process and technology. Lack of user engagement is the number one reason for the failure of CRM systems. Unlike back-end IT software, successfully deploying a CRM solution requires substantial user engagement to drive user adoption. Engage users early, and often, during the system planning and implementation phases, so they understand ’What’s in it for them’. CRM has to be perceived as simple, quick, easy to use and more convenient or frontline users will circumvent it and continue with business as usual. User engagement is your biggest hurdle. You need to gain acceptance and reduce resistance to change.

4. Are expectations realistic?

Select your CRM partner with care. Use a well-established company with a history of successful, relevant implementations. Check references from existing clients, choose a company who you feel comfortable dealing with and who listens to your needs. Has the supplier or software provider done work in similar industries before? Can you talk to users at reference sites? Bear in mind that implementing a CRM solution is a long-term project and you may have to work with them for some time.

5. Remember – installing software is only part of CRM

A ’vanilla’ implementation of CRM software can be installed in days if not hours. But it is not an out-of-the-box panacea for all your business challenges. For long-term success, a full implementation plan with timelines is essential. This should include: process design, hardware, software, product configuration, data integrity and migration, integration, testing, customisation, training and roll-out.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Large initiatives are more complex and have higher failure rates. Keep it simple to start – it’s generally best to phase projects. Don’t try to include too much functionality. Run a pilot if appropriate.

6. Customisation – does it do what you want it to do?

Every organisation is unique and all CRM systems will require some tailoring if they are to fit with the way you work. What other systems and functions does the CRM need to integrate with – accounting packages, access for remote workers, corporate mobile phones? Check the software to see how much customisation can be done by internal users or administrators and how much will require costly external developer input. There is a growing sector of third party applications that offer enhanced functionality for some CRM systems. If your CRM software does not meet your need with its core functionality, see if these provide an off-the-peg solution to your problem. But check to see at what cost. If customisation or special integration is needed, ask for examples of previous work that your CRM specialist has undertaken.

“He who fails to plan, plans to fail”. Do not try to implement CRM with only a vague idea of what you are trying to achieve, or what the final solution will look like. Put a ’stake in the sand’ formalising roles and responsibilities and listing specific measurable metrics that are documented at the beginning of the process. This gives a clear picture, helping vendors provide accurate timelines and costs and helps eliminate any nasty implementation surprises. It also allows you to measure the success of the CRM and assess ROI.

8. Does the CRM meet your needs, now – and in the future?

Test, test and then test again. Once your CRM is installed you need to check and ensure that it does what you expect. This can take a surprisingly long time as it involves staff from each department. Plus, any problems and bugs detected in the first round of testing will require re-testing. This also highlights additional requirements that were not originally specified. It can also provide valuable insight to future development. Is the system scalable? If your customer base grows or you want to add functionality (such as manage email campaigns) can the system cope with expansion?

9. Look at the total cost of the system

Whatever type of CRM system you chose, in-house, as a hosted service or in the cloud, all expenditure on the system needs to be included to give a true picture of the total cost of ownership. Does the software come with all the sales, marketing and customer service functionality you need? Or, are there additional costs to buy modules needed for functions such as web access, mobile CRM or to run marketing campaigns?

What about data storage or adding new users, will the costs escalate? Customisation can significantly boost the overall cost and greatly add to integration expenditure. Are there any recurring annual fees – if so how much? Don’t forget to factor in training. A simple, intuitive system will be quicker and easier to learn than larger, more complex systems.

10. Are you supported?

If you are going to implement CRM effectively, listen to experts who know how to do it in a way that gets results. An unsupported CRM solution will fail. Always ensure that you have the correct support option from your supplier and renew this when appropriate.

Review and escalate this if necessary when your system grows or develops beyond your original implementation. Confirm what exactly is covered by support; is some training and/or some customisation included? Check what Service Level Agreement (SLA) is provided. Does the software have a reputation for being robust and is the original software manufacturer dependable with a reliable history?

CRM should allow your company to expand and become more successful. It should enable you to retain more customers and identify and target new customers cost effectively, resulting in greater revenues and profits. It will continue to grow and evolve as you, your business and the markets change.

But be ready for bumps in the road. Be ready to refine strategies, revise goals, re-set metrics and learn from feedback.