Feature Shock: How New CRM Functionality Can Thwart Adoption

Let’s say you’re a CRM vendor. Your constant mission is to provide users with what they need, and your biggest fear is that your competitors will be better at that than you are.

How do you stay in front? If you come from a traditional software background, your default answer is likely to be “new features.” The addition of new features and functionality has been a staple of software sales, especially for established technologies; it’s a way of evolving the product, bringing in new capabilities and, from a marketing standpoint, allowing you to coax more money from your existing customers.

Which is fine and dandy — sometimes. CRM places a new responsibility on vendors to manage these changes so that their customers can handle them. In other words, they need to think about upgrades from the perspective of their customers in order to make changes worthwhile. The addition of features can no longer be seen as a software issue — it has to be seen as an adoption issue.

The Adoption Battle

CRM users are already fighting the adoption battle in their own organizations. It’s often a struggle to get users to interface with the CRM system in the first place; once they’re there, they tend to stick with the basics.

Managers use more features, but the percentage of functionality that’s actually put to use is relatively small. That said, every organization is different, so it’s not really a question of which features a vendor’s solution should do without; it’s more a question of how well those “specialist” features integrate into the whole solution.

Now, into this mix comes the need for new features. Handled well, the result is a jump in effectiveness; handled badly, the result can be crippled adoption and, ultimately, a step backward. In the SaaS era, this can happen faster than ever.

Training Is Crucial

One often-forgotten aspect of new feature introduction is the need for training. Users often are forgotten in the CRM upgrade process; in many cases, it’s assumed they’ll pick up on new features as they work. With a few exceptions, that’s not how it happens. Without some instruction, many new features are simply ignored. On the other hand, users who get some training use 20 percent more features, according to Donna Weber, SugarCRM’s director of training services.

Training presents its own issues, however. With upgrades coming on a quarterly basis for many SaaS solutions, can CRM customers afford to pull employees away from their jobs to learn about new features every time an upgrade comes down the pike? Especially if that upgrade includes only one or two additions that pertain to their job duties? That’s the training question many organizations ask.

In a great many cases, training is put off, and the result is a knowledge gap that keeps users from harnessing the power of the systems in which their organizations are investing.

CRM Thinking

There’s a way for vendors to help their customers to get around this problem. The answer is to apply some CRM thinking to the issue of CRM feature introductions. Instead of dumping every new idea into a new version of a solution, vendors can instead group new features logically. That way, one part of an organization can be trained on new features instead of the entire organization.

One vendor adept at this is RightNow, which groups its upgrades in coherent chunks aimed at addressing specific problems. One upgrade may be for Web 2.0 technologies to help in marketing, the next may focus on the call center. Doing this not only eases the training issue, but also allows the new features to be placed in a narrative to explain why users should want to use them — thus helping with adoption.

It’s also important to deliver features customers need when they need them. Bleeding-edge improvements are neat, but unless they can help users run their businesses better, they’re just more clutter within the application.

No CRM solution can stand pat and hope to survive, but the process of change can be a tough one for users. Mitigating this requires vendors to understand how their customers work, and CRM customers need to consider how vendors introduce new features during the buying process.

If a vendor’s upgrade strategy isn’t working, users need to be vocal about it. Just as there’s no sense in buying software that doesn’t get used, adding features that go ignored benefits no one.

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz 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 two books on World War II aviation, and his next two are slated for publication in 2010.

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