The Essential Guide to a Successful CRM Rollout

Updated: April 30, 2009

Successful CRM implementations don't happen on their own. They take planning and effort.

Although the below tips are listed step-by-step, rolling out CRM isn't a completely sequential process. Some steps, like training , need to start earlier, and others, like selecting your CRM product and engaging professional services , tend to overlap. However, you need to implement all the steps here if you're going to have a successful CRM experience.

The Steps

1. Build a team. In all but the smallest companies, CRM is a group effort. Once you decide CRM is right for your organization, the next step is to assemble a team to handle implementing it.

Although the exact composition of your team will vary with your company, you'll need certain key players for this process. Perhaps the most important is the executive sponsor. This is someone at the top who has to be willing to push hard to successfully implement CRM. Marketing , sales and IT need to be represented as well. You also need a team leader who is in charge of the operation. Usually, this will be different from the sponsor. The leader will be responsible for running the day-to-day operations of the CRM implementation.

2. Kick-start it. Once you assemble your team, you need to get everyone together for a kick-off meeting. You may want to do this after choosing a consultant, since a consultant can help you plan the event.

The kick-off meeting is the place to get everyone acquainted, explain generally what CRM is and what it will do for the company, develop a basic timetable and make some fundamental decisions. You may want to put together a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation for the meeting to show the implementation's basic goals and how the process will work.

The initial meeting should produce several things. The most important is probably defining the roles of team members and various company departments.

The second most important outcome should be the initial timetable and milestones for the CRM implementation. This is second to defining roles because it will probably change as you get into the process. Alterations in the schedule are somewhat expected in something as complex as a CRM implementation, and they shouldn't be a problem as long as they are communicated early and carefully controlled.

However, it's important that everyone understands that changing the requirements in order to meet the timetable is not going to happen. The schedule is important. Producing a useful result is vital to success.

Finally, this stage should include a communications and training plan describing how you're going to get everyone in the company behind the CRM effort and how you'll train the various participants on the system. The training shouldn't be set in stone, but you need to start promoting the benefits of CRM to your staff as early as possible. Think of the communications effort as an internal marketing campaign .

3. Develop requirements. One of the earliest jobs of the CRM-implementation team is to develop the requirements for your CRM effort. What do you want it to do for your company? What are the strategic goals you want CRM to support? With which other parts of the company will CRM interface?

Emphasize functions, not features. Concentrate on what you want done, not how to do it. The "how" is strongly influenced by the CRM product you choose, and specifying it too quickly may inadvertently lock you into a product that doesn't best meet your needs.

4. Select a CRM product. Once you know your strategic needs and the requirements that support them, you can produce an intelligent RFP (Request for Proposal) for CRM vendors .

Watch to see how well each responding vendor can meet your needs and match your emphasis. A mismatch typically isn't as much a matter of not being able to perform tasks as it is not doing them well. Almost all CRM products can do all the major parts of CRM, but all solutions have strengths and weaknesses. You want to choose a product that aligns with your goals and requirements.

5. Engaging professional services. Professional services are a paradox. On one hand, the earlier in the process you hook up with someone to guide you, the better off you are. On the other hand, consultants and VARs (value-added resellers) are no more individual than CRM software. Until you've narrowed down your choice of CRM product, it's hard to get the right professional consultant.

Take your time in picking your consultant or VAR. Look for someone who has done projects similar to yours both in size and in industry. Make sure this is an individual with whom you can work and who can collaborate with your team. Check references carefully.

Ideally, you want a consultant who can think beyond the technical box. Implementing CRM isn't just about getting a piece of software up and running; it involves looking at business processes and considering strategic goals as well.

SMBs (small- to medium-sized businesses) often use VARs who provide consulting as well as the software and hardware for their CRM implementations. Larger projects tend to employ independent consultants who are strictly sources of advice. Both approaches have worked successfully.

6. Modeling CRM to your business. This step includes identifying and characterizing the business processes that will be involved in your CRM effort. In many ways, this is the heart of the CRM implementation.

Each process involved in CRM must be broken down and analyzed. The first question to ask is, "How do we really do it now?" instead of, "How do the people at the top think we do it?" or "How does the book say we do it?" The next to ask is, "How can we use CRM to do our job better?" Then decide what the steps in the process are, who is responsible for each step and how the work flows through the process.

You'll find that your CRM system comes with a host of predefined processes which you can use as is, customize to your specific needs or apply as the basis for creating your own processes. You'll have to decide when to take the easy way and use a process as it stands, and when you'll want to go to the extra effort to modify it. Designing business processes like this is a trade-off. Your consultant can help you decide the best mix for you.

It's critical that these process definitions be complete, including exception handling and alternate routes. A missing step or an exception not allowed for can cause big trouble further down the path. Worst case: you don't catch the problem until it causes a blunder with a customer.

The other important part of fitting CRM to your business is designing the user interface to promote easy, effective information flow into and out of your system. This includes setting up dashboards for executives, creating the appropriate screens for users and getting it all as right as possible.

This is probably the most iterative step in the process of installing CRM. That's a fancy way of saying you're unlikely to get this stuff right the first time. Set it up and have the users try it, find out what they like, don't like and where the holes are. Modify it, and let them try the software again. Don't try for absolute perfection, but keep tweaking it until you've got it reasonably right.

7. Training. This actually includes two factors — or three if you break it down further.

The first part of training is selling the idea of CRM to your employees, especially the sales staff who will be doing most of the extra work. If your people don't believe in your CRM effort, you'll have a very difficult time implementing CRM.

The second part of this step is training your administrators and users. Most places start by training the administrators before the sales staff, customer-service representatives and others who interact with the system. It's important to emphasize mastery and understanding on this first training cycle. That is, you want all your people thoroughly comfortable with the parts of the system they will be using, as well as understand how the parts fit together and why they're doing what they're doing.

Be sure to allot plenty of time and sufficient resources for training.

8. Desktop and system integration (Microsoft Outlook and Excel). CRM doesn't exist in a vacuum. It needs to be tied into enterprise applications like Outlook and Excel. You should be able to define what kinds of data will be moving between the CRM system, desktops and other corporate applications. The IT staff should be able to set up routines to move the data as needed.

This is a job for your IT staff. Usually, they start planning the integration early in the process and begin the actual integration as soon as you've installed the CRM package.

While CRM vendors have done a lot of work to make their products easy to integrate, the process still isn't as easy as everyone would like. Your IT staff can keep you up-to-date on the progress and issues. Integration and data import are areas where you need to stay in the loop. Otherwise, problems are likely to surface at inconvenient moments — like when you try to go live.

9. Importing your data. Data import is another job for your IT people. This can be trickier than application integration because of the variety of data formats and how the pieces of data have to fit into your CRM system.

Take advantage of the opportunity to thoroughly clean the data before importing it. It will pay big long-term dividends. Eliminate duplicate and outdated information and fix bad records. Be especially on the lookout for inconsistencies between records from different parts of the company. You'll almost certainly find them.

10. Testing and piloting your implementation. Making sure everything works in the real world is one of the most important, and most often ignored, steps in the entire CRM rollout. Don't inflict your new CRM system on your customers and staff until you're absolutely sure everything works and all the holes have been plugged. Holes refer to conditions not allowed for in the original planning. Even a moderately complex CRM system will have them, and it is much better to find them in testing than when they bite a real customer.

You should begin testing parts of the system as they are finished with an eye to modifying them as needed. Then you should test the entire system as realistically as possible. In this case, that means under realistic loads — numbers of simulated customers, transactions and other factors. In setting your testing loads, don't forget to allow for busy times such as the holidays. Generally, if your CRM system is going to have problems, it will have them under maximum load.

If you value your customers, do not take your CRM system live until it has passed these tests, even if it means delaying full implementation. Understand, too, that deploying a CRM system is always somewhat iterative. That is, you almost never get everything right the first time through, and you have to expect to do various degrees of tweaking before you expose your customers to it.

This is not a sign of failure. Failure is not tuning your CRM system and inflicting an unprepared mess on your customers and employees.

And Finally …

Just because you've successfully implemented your CRM program doesn't mean you're done with the effort. Relating to your customers is an ongoing process, and so is working with and adapting the CRM application that supports it.

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