Missing the mark: Why most CRM plans fail

Doug Tanoury is a customer relationship management consultant (CRM) and contributed this piece to the Computerworld Community. He can be reached at dtanoury1@home.com. If you have an opinion about CRM, you can share it in our CRM forums.

Despite its vast potential, for the majority of practitioners, CRM has yet to live up to its greatest promise: the ability to decisively and dramatically improve the performance of staffers so they can do what they do better.

It's that qualitative and quantitative improvement in human performance that is the most desired and fundamental benefit of any CRM initiative. Unfortunately, for many companies that spend many millions of dollars to deploy CRM across the enterprise, it remains a benefit unrealized.

More often than not, human performance and customer interactions are hindered by the rigidity and poor design of CRM systems. These flaws aren't necessarily software-related; rather, design and customization for a client's specific business processes and unique business needs may not fit that business. Deploying a CRM system with standard or "out-of-the-box" applications and attempting to change business processes to conform to that functionality is pushing a square peg into a round hole. The business is damaged, and customers aren't better served.

Deploying a CRM system without a plan to improve and to re-engineer the business process is just another quick fix that will hinder the potential of the CRM implementation and cause more problems further down the line.

CRM at its best allows staff to perform at levels they wouldn't be able to perform at without the system. It's an enabling tool to allow people to work smarter and faster. It facilitates the interaction of staff with customers by providing specific product data and critical customer information at the most important junctures of contact.

However, many CRM implementations are excessively self-serving to the organizations that deploy them and lack a real outward customer focus. These implementations are easy to spot -- they are preoccupied with generating a million management reports and capturing information of dubious value that has no real effect on human performance and subsequently customer contact quality.

They also focus on automating workflow and tasks that don't impact the quality of customer contacts.

Getting the correct information to the right person at the required time is at the heart of improving human performance with CRM systems. Simply deploying a product and touching a few problem processes in a superficial way doesn't achieve this. Success requires significant and ongoing resources to populate and update knowledge tools. It also requires in-depth examination and re-engineering of business processes that impact customer interactions. No wonder most CRM initiatives are initial failures -- most companies don't have the resources or sophistication in these areas to be successful.

Most CRM software vendors are interested in selling software and leave the arduous work of customization and implementation to consultant partners or to their own professional services groups. The key to CRM success is not so much the product as it is the skill of implementation. A poor product smartly implemented will outperform a superior product poorly implemented. The key is how skillfully it's customized to the business processes and needs of a specific client. Ask yourself: Does it allow your staff to perform at a level that would otherwise be unachievable? It's a tall order for any system, and it continues to define CRM success and failure.

Many companies purchase and deploy CRM systems only to discover that they're too cumbersome or impact the business adversely, and as a result, they're not used.

For instance, in a call center, the time it takes to deal with a customer should decrease by deploying a CRM system. But in many cases, the time spent handling customers actually doubles or triples. This has a snowball effect, and because time spent with each customer increases, customer hold times and hangups tend to increase. And if left unchecked, customer satisfaction decreases -- and soon revenue will, too.

There are other examples as well. A field sales representative might ignore the system to qualify opportunities or record customer contacts because it doesn't help him sell more. He sees it as filling out forms just for the sake of filling out forms.

There's no end to people debunking or deconstructing the promise of CRM today, but with so many failures and so few successes, that just seems too easy. What we're seeing is not a failure of CRM or technology, but a failure of management -- a failure to raise the hammer and swipe the trowel and intelligently and skillfully craft systems that empower staff and serve customers. It is the misguided belief that the answer to our problems lies primarily in technical solutions rather than in the blending and interaction of people and process with technology.

CRM software is a technology tool in the same sense that a hammer and trowel are tools. Success depends not on the tools themselves but on the skill of the builder.

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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