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Nine steps for successful CRM implementation: Check IT List

AMI Partners consultant Laurie McCabe provides a nine-step guide for successful CRM implementations.

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Customer relationship management, or CRM, may seem somewhat like alphabet soup to many small- and medium-sized businesses (SMB). The variety of CRM options (and acronyms that come with sales, customer service and marketing terms) can make decision-making quite difficult for SMBs when it comes to solving business needs.

CRM doesn't have to be difficult. Here are some key guidelines to follow before you implement CRM at your company.

  1. Develop corporatewide CRM engagement from key stakeholders. Many CRM projects fail because critical stakeholders are not involved in setting CRM strategy, assessing requirements and selecting options. Get key sponsors involved from the get-go and make sure that the individuals involved can make the financial and time commitments to ensure success. If possible, involve customers in this dialogue through surveys, councils and other ways to ensure that your strategy is in sync with their expectations. At the executive level, start determining the kinds of information that various people need to better understand and respond to customers.

  2. Envision the company's CRM strategy. CRM is more than just software. It is also about selecting appropriate methodologies and business practices to help your business enable better relationships with customers. Benchmark your company's current CRM practices with peers in your industry, and set some high-level customer relationship goals in areas such as increasing customer retention, speeding problem resolution, closing a higher percentage of sales, etc.

  3. Determine and prioritize CRM drivers and requirements. Even in small companies, CRM decisions are often stovepiped in relation to departmental needs and business problems. For example, sales managers may want to get better pipeline and forecasting capabilities, while customer service groups want to provide Web-based self-service customer support. Engage a corporate team of decision-makers to prioritize CRM requirements. Priorities should include solving problems in areas such as functional areas that are causing the most pain, cost and missed opportunity for the business; areas where employees are most or least resistant to changing business; weaknesses compared with competitors; complexity of each area that requires addressing; and with what other systems this needs to integrate.

  4. Develop a CRM roadmap. Once you have the high-level vision and know which areas are likely to bring the greatest reward, develop a master plan consisting of several smaller steps and projects that will move you toward achieving the corporate CRM vision. For each step, spell out key outcomes and metrics; roles and responsibilities; budgets and timelines. Start with low-risk/high-reward projects to build momentum and success. Make sure all key stakeholders in each project are included up front and early in the solution evaluation and implementation process to ensure faster, higher user adoption at the end.

  5. Think integration. Determine how, where and when CRM tools need to integrate with one another and with other applications. At a high level, this includes evaluating the business processes flow, and identifying process-related customer interactions and transactions that need to be integrated. For example, it's likely that you'll want to integrate sales initiatives and transactions across channels, including e-commerce storefronts, to optimize sales opportunities, and link your CRM system with your financials and/or ERP system.

  6. Do your homework and create a short list. Check out prospective vendors' financials and customer references; eliminate any that appear shaky. Talk to peers who have more experience in the CRM area, search Web sites and peruse publications. Many hosted CRM vendors offer 30-day free trials. Get an independent perspective from an independent CRM consultant, too. With a roadmap in place and your needs defined, you can come up with a manageable list of RFP-worthy vendors.

  7. Apply the 80-20 rule in the selection process. Don't get snowed under by competing vendors' feature-function wars. You've already determined your top needs and priorities: stick to that list and determine which vendor can best meet those needs before you get sidetracked with the nice-to-have -- but not essential -- features. Compare how vendors stack up in terms of solution strengths and weaknesses. Have vendors spell out terms and conditions, thorough document pricing, training, methodology, milestones and metrics for a successful deployment. Finally, listen to your intuition, and select a vendor that you think will be as responsive to your needs, after the sale is closed.

  8. Keep everyone in the loop. Once you've made a selection, err on the side of over-communicating. Get internal evangelists involved early, and encourage input along the way as you roll it out. Offer flexible training options to help accommodate different schedules and learning preferences. This will also speed adoption and produce benefits more quickly.

  9. Learn, adjust and evolve. Develop a mechanism to monitor use, get feedback and adapt the solution as necessary to make sure it's evolving with business and customer needs. Depending on the type of CRM package you've deployed, you can use surveys, ongoing education, user groups and other venues to stay on top of how these needs are changing, as well as what types of adaptations the solution will need over time.

Laurie McCabe is vice president of SMB business solutions at Access Markets International (AMI) Partners Inc. in New York.

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