All-Star Players

Information technology managers are finding that to maximize their often costly customer relationship management (CRM) investments, they must handpick team members who possess not only top technology skills but an elusive set of analytic and soft skills to boot.

At Hub Group Distribution Services, a subsidiary of Hub Group Inc., a transportation management firm in Arlington Heights, Ill., assembling a knowledgeable CRM team was critical. The company last year decided to move from Pivotal Corp.'s CRM software to PeopleSoft Inc.'s PeopleSoft 8.0 CRM. The primary deciding factor, says CIO Gint Dargis, was that Hub Group was already running PeopleSoft Financials 7.5. When it came time to expand the company's CRM system to the call center and field service, the promise of easy integration with Financials 7.5 swayed Hub Group toward PeopleSoft's sales and marketing CRM modules.

"We basically relied on PeopleSoft's consulting group to do the development," says Dargis. And with an IT staff of 17, Hub Group was lucky: Not only were several staffers familiar with PeopleSoft Financials, which eased integration of the CRM tools, but an internal power user who was also familiar with PeopleSoft served as a de facto business-side project manager.

Such cooperation is critical, experts say. Users and analysts strongly advocate having at least two project managers - one from IT and one from the business side - to effectively lead a CRM project. "You need a combination of intuitive and [idea-generating] abilities," says Frank Ingari, CEO of Wheelhouse Corp., a Burlington, Mass.-based CRM consulting firm.

These project managers must crack the whip to meet milestones. On the IT side, they must be adept dotted-line managers, since most of the people on the team - including the business-side project manager, consultants, systems integrators, users and others - won't be direct reports. For that reason, IT project managers must be patient and focus on project goals while jumping through bureaucratic hoops, says Beth Eisenfeld, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

The stakes are high. According to a recent report from Deloitte Consulting in New York, CRM projects can cost $10,000 to $50,000 per seat, depending on their complexity and the number of users. Services expenses, including those for internal IT staff, as well as for systems integration and vendor consulting, make up 38% of the cost, according to Gartner. And that number is climbing, says Eisenfeld, who adds that she has seen services expenses as high as 48% of the total project cost.

Business Chops

Beyond familiarity with the software, the most important skills for CRM staffers are two attributes that have long been in demand among technologists: business knowledge and the ability to communicate with users.

The growth of CRM underscores the need for technologists who grasp the broader business picture. "At some point in any project, you're going to want the best code jockeys you can get," Eisenfeld says. "But you want those code jockeys to understand the business, too. If they're just following specs without thinking, they're not adding value to the project."

For a decade now, CIOs and recruiters have been clamoring for IT workers to bolster their business knowledge, but that demand takes on new urgency with CRM because it's externally focused by nature. On internal projects, when push comes to shove, end users can be compelled to use a less-than-perfect application. With CRM, the stakes are higher. "When you screw up, customers say, 'I'm not going to put up with this - I'm going elsewhere,' " Eisenfeld says.

Andrew Benedetti, branch manager of the Philadelphia office of recruitment firm RHI Consulting Inc., notes that communication skills and business knowledge often go hand in hand. Too often, businesspeople and technologists "speak two different languages and need a translator. That translator needs good communication skills and an IT background," he says.

"They don't necessarily need to be able to develop a program, but [they must be able to] read and understand it," says Benedetti. "And they need the business savvy. They need to be able to tell the business folks when something they ask for is not feasible."

While it isn't easy to find top-notch technologists with these skills and the knowledge of specialized CRM software tools, there's some good news for hiring managers: Experts say that in today's job market, there are so many applicants for CRM positions that employers can afford to be selective.

Ulfelder is a freelance writer in Southboro, Mass. Contact him at sulfelder@yahoo.com.

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