3 Human Obstacles to CRM Success

One of the misconceptions that has bedeviled CRM has been the idea that it is simply a technology you buy and implement, thus solving your problems. Technology is a part of scaling your processes for managing customer relationships, to be sure, but in reality it’s a link in a chain of decisions and activities that form your business’ discipline around CRM. Any weak links will cause the whole chain to fail.

While the technology decisions are often scrutinized, the most frequent weak link in the chain is not technology. The technology almost always does an acceptable job of collecting, collating and providing reports on the data.

The weak link is too often the employees who must then take that data and translate it into real-world reactions to what it indicates. From there, managers must then direct their employees to take advantage of that data.

That is all far more easily said than done. There are three serious obstacles to overcome in order to translate the insight CRM provides into actions that improve sales, marketing, service — and, ultimately, your customers’ experience with your business. Luckily, once you can spot these obstacles, they become inherently easier to overcome.

1. The Tendency to See CRM as Technology

This myopic view is hazardous for a number of reasons. First, it tends to punt responsibility for CRM into the realm of the IT department, making it once removed from the business problems it needs to address. Second, it also can create a perception issue in which, in managers’ minds, the individual customers become disassociated from the aggregate data about them.

This leads to a number of problems. You can’t treat CRM as another IT project; most IT projects have distinct ending points, but CRM is an eternal work in progress. Since your customers and your business conditions are always changing, CRM needs to change as well.

Classifying CRM as a pure IT issue will result in stale thinking and an obsolete approach to customers in short order. It will also minimize the return you can get for your CRM investment, since a failure to connect business problems with the capabilities of a CRM application often results in ignored features — or, worse, the acquisition and integration of other software to solve problems that the CRM application could have solved if only sufficient attention had been paid to its capabilities.

The perception issue is even thornier. Unless managers are prepared to dig into customer data, they can make false assumptions about customer desires and behavior. The highest level of reporting is great for taking the pulse of your business’ collective efforts, but it’s not good for taking the pulse of individual customers. In order to succeed, managers need to dig deeper and make sure their employees do the same.

2. The Fallacy of Viewing Adoption as Optional

When your business is doing well, it becomes easy to accept employees’ complaints about CRM and to allow adoption and utilization rates to slacken, especially from sales. What this really does is to distort the picture you have of how your sales operation works, since much of the intelligence you can use to segment buyer types and make assumptions about their behavior is now hidden.

Adoption is the classic barrier to CRM success, but it’s becoming a lower barrier to cross. The recession has turned many resistors into users, because the need for performance improvement has come to outweigh the resistance to change. We’re also entering a time of significant change to the user interface; rather than forcing users to alter their work processes to the application, next-generation applications are allowing users to easily adapt the way the application presents data to reflect how they work.

In some cases, it boils down to issuing an ultimatum about CRM. But adoption has to be uniform and universal — exempting some employees from it creates the conditions for confusion, resentment and restricted visibility.

3. The Need to Hire CRM-Minded Employees

This is the most basic obstacle that derails CRM — employees who aren’t really invested in the customer. If your staff has this attitude, it doesn’t matter what kind of data you supply them with — it won’t be translated into actions that maximize sales and stimulate loyalty unless you, as a manager, provide them with exhaustive and meticulous directives — an effort that will ultimately collapse over time.

Technology can’t fix this problem. While many CRM problems develop around the interface between technology and people, this is purely a people problem. Heading this off requires a few critical actions.

First, you must embark on the hiring process with the idea of customer focus as an important criterion. Hiring for attitude is as important as hiring for skills. Second, you have to make sure your management embodies the idea of customer focus and reinforces it on a regular basis.

Third, it’s important for managers to explain what they consider to be critical data culled from CRM to help employees see CRM as the critical tool to help them excel at their jobs. In other words, if you want your employees to partner with your customers, then you as a manager need to partner with your employees.

These ideas seem simple enough, but the deeper you get into CRM technology, the more difficult it can be to remain focused on these non-technological issues. CRM is a discipline that encompasses technology, people and processes; two of these three things involve humans. While managing technology can be tricky, managing people is harder — but it’s a critical part of making CRM work.

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz blogs about CRM at Forecasting Clouds. He has been a technology journalist for 15 years and has immersed himself in the world of CRM since 2006. When he's not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he's wearing his airplane geek hat; he's written three books on World War II aviation.

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