Opinion: CRM initiative shows there's no lasting change without buy-in

It was about the rockiest start to a major IT initiative I've ever been involved in. Because I'd implemented IT marketing programs (now called client relationship management, or CRM) earlier in my career, the CIO charged me with doing the same for his organization.

Of course, projects that sail along smoothly, with no resistance, are great. But it's the ones that throw lots of roadblocks in our way that end up teaching us things.

We were in trouble from the start. In a meeting with all of his direct reports (which included me), the CIO declared his intention to establish a CRM program. He didn't offer any reasons for this. He just announced that I would be directing the effort and stated that he expected everyone's full cooperation. The reaction from my peers was mostly silent, but I could feel the tension in the room. A few comments were made that made it clear why this initiative was receiving such a cold reaction. The one that best summed things up: "We're up to our necks in work, and we're now supposed to pony up resources and time to create whatever CRM is?"

I said that I would be answering the question of "whatever CRM is" at a meeting in a few days. I didn't sense much enthusiasm for that, either.

In the days that followed, several fellow IT managers called to ask about this "CRM thing." Most of them implied that we didn't need it at all. The more accommodating said it could wait until next year.

Negotiating buy-in

I could understand why some of my fellow managers might be panicking. We all had more than we could do already. Any new initiative was bound to sound like just another thing that we couldn't give the proper attention to.

It's been my experience that change can't be mandated. For it to really take hold and transform an organization, you need buy-in. Tell a group of people that you plan to make some major changes in the way things are done, and the thought going through the head of each and every one of them will be, "What's in it for me?" We hadn't even attempted to answer that question yet, and as the days passed, there was nothing to stop the resistance from growing.

Winning buy-in from stakeholders can be tricky in the best of circumstances, but I had a taller wall to scale than normal, simply because there had been time for rumor and misinformation to foster discontent. I wasn't sure how to overcome the resistance that was building at my upcoming meeting, so I talked to another IT manager. She didn't hesitate. Her advice was to show our peers what happens in an IT organization that doesn't have a CRM program and then show how things work in an IT organization with a mature CRM program in place. Then, she said, "explain the differences and ask us which one we'd rather be." It was a brilliant idea.

I prepared my material, scheduled the meeting and informed everyone that I would identify the pros and cons of CRM programs. In an effort to ensure attendance, I said that each manager would be expected to tell me what they thought CRM would mean for their part of the IT organization – in other words, they would be asked to vote.

At the meeting, I began by saying that, whether we had a CRM program or not, we should view our IT service organization as a business and ourselves as its owners. While IT wasn't itself a profit center, the decisions we made affected the costs of our clients on the business side. We had to seriously consider that our clients viewed outside IT service firms as our competition.

"So, CRM will help us prove we're the best alternative?" one manager asked.

"It will," I said, "but I don't expect you to take my word for it. Let me show you instead." I then laid out what defined us now, as an IT service organization with no CRM program in place:

  1. We don't have any formal marketing sense about our clients.

  2. We don't know what services they use, what they're happy and unhappy with, what their measures of success are, what their billings are, who the IT decision-makers are, what their IT usage profile is (by line of business) or what our role is or is supposed to be in supporting their success and managing their risk.

  3. Clients and even other parts of IT service don't know how to best obtain our services.

  4. We don't have any repeatable way to make sure we have the resources needed and in place to honor every commitment we make. We tend to promise things and then try to figure out what's required later.

  5. We don't have any cross-functional management or coordination capability – we react.

  6. We lack a consistent notion of how to create and add value to each business we serve.

  7. We don't manage the expectations of our clients with a comprehensive description of our services.

  8. We don't appropriately capture revenue for all services, and our billing can be unpredictable.

  9. We sometimes blame other parts of our own organization for a missed commitment, giving clients the impression that IT is a dysfunctional organization.

  10. We don't share our direction and strategy with our clients or seek feedback on how we could be more responsive.

The CIO then called for discussion on these characteristics. Several managers were defensive at first, but the CIO was able to draw out a general acknowledgment that by really owning our service organization, we could begin to address each of these undesirable traits.

That was my cue to move on to the characteristics of an IT service organization with a mature CRM program in place:

  1. It has a service directory that's written in client terms and is available both as a hard copy and online.

  2. It makes integrated bids on projects, with each IT service aspect represented as needed, and all coordinated through an account relationship management function.

  3. It reviews service-level commitments for continuous improvement opportunities.

  4. It proactively deals with client issues.

  5. It has a formal marketing plan for each business and function it supports.

  6. It routinely communicates with clients in multiple ways, touting accomplishments, heralding direction, highlighting client success and soliciting feedback.

  7. Its intra-service coordination is seamless, and performance is consistently excellent.

  8. Each IT service line of business is benchmarked annually to show performance and cost differentials compared with external alternatives.

  9. Clients routinely ask for IT's advice on using recently developed technologies to avoid cost, improve their client services and increase their revenue.

  10. Clients clearly appreciate IT's value and its services to them and see it as a powerful ally and involved partner in achieving their business goals.

Which one should we be?

Now the managers had two sharply differentiated organizational profiles to consider. What, the CIO wanted to know, were the pros and cons of each? The single advantage of staying as we were was simply that it was the easiest option – in the short term. The cons were that clients went without information and were unhappy, that employees were frustrated, that clients felt that outsourcing would be preferable and that, despite knowing about our problems, we had done nothing about them.

On the plus side for changing were some simple facts: Our clients' experience with our IT service would improve dramatically, as would IT employees' understanding of their role in providing it, and IT service would improve. The only con we could think of was that until benchmarking was done, clients might see the CRM function as bureaucratic or an additional expense.

Then I made the choice more stark by posing two questions:

  • Which IT service organization would you rather have serve you?

  • Which would you rather work for?

In the end, we had our buy-in; the entire management team fully endorsed the idea of CRM implementation.

As we moved on to execution of the plan, we staffed the CRM team with people proficient in interpersonal communications and consultative skills, and then we kept them focused on critical CRM processes. The client-focused transformation, once begun, was irreversible. Benchmarks gave us a basis for competitive comparisons and continued improvement. Service directory information was in demand the minute it became available. CRM gave rise to outside training initiatives, including industry best practices, for all IT professional staff. IT professionals started to feel more respected and proud of their contribution and value to the enterprise.

As for the "What's in it for me?" question, it gradually answered itself as our desired outcomes began to be achieved. It took a while, but our constant state of reaction was gradually replaced as more time became available to us and we were able to more favorably influence our future. Strategic discussions, previously rare (given the fact that our beepers would never shut up), became routine.

By the way, a key aspect of the CRM unit's communication plan urged the entire management team to get out of our offices much more often to meet with both clients and staff. It was an undeniably good idea, so we all agreed. And guess what. The CRM unit began tracking us to make sure we followed through.

Al Kuebler was CIO for AT&T Universal Card, Los Angeles County, Alcatel and McGraw-Hill and director of process engineering at Citicorp. He also directed the consulting activity for CSC Europe. He is now a consultant on general management and IT issues. He is the author of the book Technical Impact: Making Your Information Technology Effective, and Keeping It That Way. He can be reached at ak@technicalimpact.com.

Other columns by Al Kuebler

Leading by letting go

Reactive bystander or proactive partner?

What are you doing for me, and why don't I know it?

What my clients taught me


Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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