The 5-Step Plan for Picking the Right CRM Consultant

Pretty much all CRM deployments need some degree of customization, the exceptions being those rare situations where businesses have very simple needs from their CRM application. Customizations can be as simple as the modification of a field to accommodate a local convention for addresses, or as complex as the addition of workflows that introduce social media data or specific sales and marketing behaviors unique to the business.

Unless you have exceptional in-house talent, this need for customization means that you’ll have to engage with a consultant, reseller or other third-party expert. Choosing one can be stress-inducing; horror stories abound about engagements gone wrong and over budget.

But these relationships happen all the time — and often quite successfully. There are some common factors in choosing the right consultants: enthusiasm from the consultant to learn about your business; the ability for the consultant to articulate an approximate timeline, with “reality checks” included for the impact of common hurdles; a track record of success to demonstrate capabilities. However, that’s not enough — a lot of good CRM consultants have horror stories of their own.

So what do you ask to be confident that the consultant you choose is the right one for you — and that you are a good match for that consultant’s skills? Here are five suggestions to help you make the right decision about a consultant.

1. Ask About Customers Like You

There’s always a bias in the customer references you’re given during a technology purchase; very naturally, the reference is always the customer whose experience is the very, very best and most rewarding.

You shouldn’t care about those customers — you aren’t them. Instead, ask about customers that share traits with your business: similar size, similar vertical market, similar business structure.

Ask to talk to those customers. This will not only give you a feel for the effectiveness of the consultant in areas that are important to you, but also help you gauge the consultant’s ability to think creatively about your vertical market.

2. Look for Case Studies

Vendors build case study libraries because they work. Smart consultants should be doing the same — especially today, when content is king when it comes to marketing. Ask prospective consultants if they have case studies for you to peruse, and then read them with a critical eye.

Does it seem like the consultant really understands the implementation? Some consultants simply set up the system and then turn the customer loose on it, which is probably not what you want. Is it clear how the consultant contributed to success beyond the implementation of the CRM software?

Case studies offer a chance for consultants to show they know what they’re doing and what their roles should be; if a consultant can’t do that, you may want to think twice before sealing a deal.

3. Understand What You Need

One guaranteed recipe for failure is for you as the customer to be unsure of what you want out of your implementation. It’s not enough to say “more revenue” or “greater customer engagement” or “improved productivity.” You have to know how to get to those overarching goals.

Many CRM customers simply fail to understand what their requirements should be, or the business processes that need to be built into CRM to take them from where they are now to where they want to be.

If you as a customer can’t describe where your company wants to go, a consultant will face an impossible task. The consultant can attempt to guess and put a system in place that requires extensive retrofitting; or beg you to provide a clearer view of things; or — if you’ve chosen someone with a nefarious streak — view your company as a spigot from which unlimited cash may flow. All three of these less-than-optimal scenarios can be avoided if you do your homework ahead of time.

4. Know Which Vendor’s CRM Application You Want

If you’ve already done some homework by researching CRM applications, you may have a preferred vendor already. Consultants can’t be experts in all of them. Most smaller consultancies are experts in one specific application, while larger ones frequently have practices centered around two or more applications.

One of the first questions you should ask is which applications are the consultant’s specialty. Match that answer with the vendor or vendors you think you want. If a consultant claims to have expertise in all CRM applications, just hang up the phone.

5. Use Social Media

You have a greater ability to do research about CRM consultants today than ever before, thanks to social media. A search for comments and ratings about CRM consultants can help you begin to build an idea of the types of consultants you should seek out or avoid.

Searching for information about consultants on your short list can yield opinions that may help you reach a final decision. This third-party discussion shouldn’t take the place of your face-to-face discussion with consultants, but it can certainly inform those discussions and arm you with the right questions to ask.

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz is a speaker, writer and consultant on topics surrounding buyer-seller relationships. He has been a technology journalist for 17 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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