10 critical factors in choosing a CRM system

Many CRM implementations go wrong because implementers fall into the same common traps. This guide lists the ten most common pitfalls and how to avoid them. Based on real-life experience, it will show you how to ensure your CRM system’s success. Knowing what the pitfalls are is more than half the battle.

A brief history of CRM

Like many buzzwords, the term CRM now stands for pretty much whatever each vendor of CRM systems wants it to, whether it is systems for salespeople (Sales Force Automation, Opportunity Management), for marketing people (Marketing Automation, Campaign Management), Helpdesks (Customer Service and Support), email and voice logging, and so on.

CRM systems were the must-have products at the height of the Internet bubble in 2000/2001. However, there followed a few years of disillusionment as expensive systems were late and then failed to deliver the results needed to meet users’ raised expectations.

The Gartner Group, a US firm of analysts, has a Hype Cycle graph showing the traditional pattern of a slow start, followed by unjustified euphoria, disillusionment, and back to a level of realisable sanity. This is where we are today, at last, with a new breed of CRM systems that are easier to install and use. They are mostly cloud-based and have monthly subscriptions that are a lot cheaper than installing an in-house system.

True Customer Relationship Management

In its original meaning, CRM is not about software or systems; it’s about how a company interacts with its customers through its people and culture.

No computer system will change the way people interact with customers, it can at best simply help them do what they want to do more efficiently. However, assuming that your sales, service, delivery and support people are competent and treat customers like customers, a properly chosen and implemented CRM system will bring sales and service efficiencies to your organisation.

Whatever your goal, fundamental factors will be critical to the success of your CRM system.

Broadly speaking, these can be divided into:

  • Getting the design right
  • Getting the adoption right
  • Choosing the right system
  • Avoiding the pitfalls

Getting the design right

The correct design should reflect the goals of your CRM strategy. These might be to:

  • Help salespeople manage and close opportunities
  • Give sales managers a complete view of the pipeline and automate sales forecasting
  • Safeguard ownership of the sales pipeline, a key company asset
  • Make sure that your organisation has a full picture of every sales process
  • Provide a complete picture of every customer to those that need it within your organisation
  • Run and track the effectiveness of marketing campaigns
  • Provide better service for your customers

Many people will answer “all of the above” and most “both sales and marketing”. If this is the case for you, it is best to start with the sales process and bring the rest online afterwards. Why? Because marketing and support teams are well-disciplined people who are used to and happy to accept automation, they know their tasks cannot be achieved without a system.

Salespeople, on the other hand, can make a sale without a CRM system, so their cooperation cannot be taken for granted.

Keeping it simple

For salespeople to use the system fully, it must be both useful to them and easy to use, so don’t make the design too complicated. The more complicated the design is, the more fields you add to each screen, the more screens you have to go through to add a contact, and the more barriers to successful adoption you will have erected.

Every extra field you ask the salesperson to complete, especially mandatory ones, the greater the chance that the salespeople will enter garbage, leave fields un-entered, or simply only use the system under duress.

Take Leonardo da Vinci’s motto “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” to heart:

  • Start with the minimum design, not the ultimate, to get people using the system
  • Make sure that as many fields as possible have sensible defaults
  • Make sure that the key fields you wish to capture (like marketing source) are shown on standard reports so if they are not completed it is evident

Design by democracy or dictatorship?

Somebody in your organisation, maybe yourself, will be tasked with choosing and implementing your new CRM system. Should you solicit the views of everybody in each department, or should you simply impose a system because you know best?

Both approaches have their drawbacks. In the former “design by committee”, the risk is that in order to please everybody the resulting design will incorporate every feature ever invented, and then some more. This will result in a complex system that will be expensive to purchase and set up, and then fail because people can’t use it, or can’t be bothered to use it.

The latter approach will result in a lean, minimalist system that is easy and fast to use, but the risk is that other departments may reject it because they weren’t consulted.

You need to ask everybody what they want, ask them again what they really need, decide for yourself what the payoff is between functionality, cost and ease of use, then get everybody’s buy-in for the final design by cajoling and argument.

Experience in herding cats would be useful here!

Choosing the right system

There’s no shortage of CRM systems on the market, from cheap and cheerful to large-scale systems that are part of ERP suites.

Contact Management

Contact management systems are primarily focused on contact (people). They record each person’s name, company and contact details, usually with some free text notes and a reminder flag for callbacks.

You can normally export the records for mail-merging. They don’t include opportunity management or sales forecasting and have a simple flat file structure. They don’t include any marketing such as sending out email newsletters. Some are single user desktop applications and some can be multi-user systems.

Opportunity Management

As the name implies, these systems focus on recording sales opportunities (leads and deals), normally with sales forecasting as a reporting option. They have a more sophisticated/complex data structure, with Accounts (companies and organisations) who have multiple Contacts (people) in them, against which you can record multiple Tasks (things to do), Activities (things that have taken place, such as meetings and calls) and Opportunities (possible sales).

They tend to come with more sophisticated reporting tools, import and export facilities and a security system. Most modern CRM systems include Opportunity Management, and even some Contact Managers do too.

For sales force automation

This is a name for a suite of software that is given to salespeople, normally field (out of office) salespeople, to help them sell. It includes either contact management or opportunity management, together sometimes with email and calendaring (diary sharing).

They can run on laptops or smartphones and tablets, and can be of quite specialist design, such as systems for pharmaceutical sales representatives or for the collection of electricity or gas meter readings.

One challenge these systems face is synchronisation – updating the device with data from head office and vice versa. Traditionally this has been done by connecting at the end of the day, but with the widespread availability of Internet connectivity, whether from broadband at home, wi-fi in a coffee shop or through the cellular telephone network, synchronisation has been replaced with systems that are permanently connected to the head office system, removing many of the support headaches that always accompany replicating remote databases, and allowing updates to be shared in real time.

For enterprise management

These are large systems, normally from an ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) vendor. They tie CRM into ERP (closed deals flow through to sales, accounts payable ties into the customer records). These systems are the most functional available, capable of huge sophistication and also of huge licence and implementation costs. Examples are SAP, Oracle Applications, and Siebel.

Cloud or Local?

In the past, all software was loaded onto the company’s servers, desktops and laptops as either desktop or client/server systems. However, the past decade has seen a huge growth in Cloud applications, where the application and data are hosted by the CRM vendor.

Desktop applications run and have all their data on an individual’s workstation (their laptop, PC, Mac, telephone or smartphone). They don’t share that data with other users in the organisation, and they don’t have access to other users’ data. Examples are Microsoft Outlook or a spreadsheet sitting on the workstation.

Salespeople love desktop applications because they are easy to use and highly personal, but the company does not have access to or ownership of the data.

Client/Server applications have a client application running on the workstation and a server application running on a shared file server that hosts the data. The server is a computer owned, managed, and located at the user’s office. The client talks to the server over a network.

Some processing takes place on the client, some on the server, and both client and server applications need to be installed and maintained. If you have multiple offices, then those offices either need to be connected with a high-speed WAN (Wide Area Network), or multiple systems are installed, which then have to be synchronised. Most traditional CRM systems functioned this way.

Client/Server applications allow everybody in the organisation to share the data, but can be complicated and time consuming to install and maintain, especially if you want multiple offices to share the data or remote access.

Data security

Data security is in the news a lot these days, with passwords being stolen from retailers and governments snooping, legally and sometimes illegally. For European Union businesses, it is illegal to store personal information (email address, telephone number etc.) on an EC citizen outside of the EU.

Generally speaking, the USA does not have a legally enforceable concept of data privacy. So it makes sense to know where your data will be physically stored, who owns the servers it resides on, whether the system can fail over if the data centre goes offline and how the data is backed up.

If you are in a regulated industry such as finance, then you’d need to make sure that your CRM supplier is compliant with your regulatory body.

Getting the adoption right

Getting your new CRM system adopted enthusiastically by everyone in the organisation will be the biggest factor in determining if the system will be a success. Reluctant users will add the minimum data that they can get away with or simply ignore it and continue to use their existing personal systems. Carrots are better than sticks, but sticks may occasionally be necessary.

Roll out from the top

Roll the system out starting from the top, not the bottom. Get senior management buy-in first, and let them be seen using and benefiting from it. The system’s use will then be associated with seniority, and the first new users will feel privileged to have access.

Getting managers to use it first will also mean that they will use the system to manage from day one, and can then help and supervise their team’s adoption.

Appoint CRM champions

In each department and at each level of the rollout, choose the first user who has a positive attitude toward the CRM system and who commands their peers’ respect.

When that person is enthused about the system, their colleagues will approach adoption positively. If you can get the most respected sales person using it first, and then he or she tells colleagues how it helps him or her, the rest will follow.

However, be aware that if an opinion former forms a negative impression of the system, that attitude will spread even faster.

Sales administrators

Get the sales administrators on side, and give them ownership of the data. A good sales administrator will spot data errors and sloppy data entry by salespeople and will either clean the data up or nag them to fix it.

Management adoption

Make sure that all managers use the system as the prime source of information when it has been rolled out to their teams. If a manager is discussing a customer or prospect with the account executive, the manager should bring the account record up on the screen and use that to drive the discussion.

During the conversation it will be obvious to the manager if the data is up to date, especially contact names and opportunity status, and it will be obvious to the account manager that such omissions are being noted. If the CEO does this as well, then the behaviour will be reinforced throughout the organisation.

But be aware that if the manager criticises the detailed data content on the system, the sales person might be tempted to enter less data next time.


Use consolidated reports, such as sales forecasting, to manage the organisation. Those reports only work if the underlying data is correct. If sales teams return to using spreadsheets to forecast sales, the onus on getting the opportunities correct in the CRM system is diminished.

Preventing reluctance

There are many reasons why some account executives would prefer to avoid using the CRM system. A CRM system gives visibility to the account manager’s prospects, contacts, and opportunities. Some salespeople are reluctant to expose this information, fearing critical review or that their value to the organisation is diminished if their contact and pipeline are no longer their secret domain. Some are uncomfortable with the technology, and some can’t be bothered.

You can introduce rules as sticks to encourage reluctant sales people. The Accounts department cannot pay a commission if the closed opportunity is not on the system. Sales Managers should take account executives to task if opportunities are regularly entered late or at the closing stage. Ultimately, it can form part of an MBO bonus (management by objectives) as a carrot, a criticism during a review or a ultimately a disciplinary matter.

Avoiding the ten pitfalls

1. Trying to please everyone

Don’t sit down and try and design the perfect CRM system that will meet 100% of every person’s wish list. The salespeople will want the system to work out their commission plan for them; the marketing people will want to track every sale back to exactly what keyword in which Google Ad generated the enquiry, and the resulting committee’s design will be a system of such technical complexity that it will continually fail, and of such user complexity that it won’t be used.

2. Selecting the primary designers

It’s better to have the sales teams as the prime designers of the system. Although the marketing department is one of the biggest beneficiaries of a well-run CRM system, only the salespeople can make it a success. Get the salespeople’s buy-in and then make sure that the marketing team’s requirements are met.

3. Preparing for rollout

Don’t just switch on the system and expect that everybody in the organisation will just pick it up. Many won’t, and their first impressions and side-comments will jeopardise the overall project’s success. New internal systems must be sold, and the roll-out needs to be planned.

4. Supporting the learning phase

Don’t forget training, even if it is only a half an hour course for salespeople. And the training course is the ideal time to make people want to use the system by stressing what’s in it for them as well as what’s in it for the company. Make sure that all users know who to call if they get stuck, and make sure that such calls are handled positively.

5. Engagement & motivation

Most internal systems are essential to the user’s job. The accountants have to use the accounting system, the purchase ordering clerk, the PO system, the marketing people, and the marketing database. Don’t forget that salespeople can function perfectly happily without a corporate CRM system; many prefer it that way. Use encouragement, carrots and sticks. Motivation is as important as understanding.

6. Keeping things fresh

Don’t leave the CRM to run itself after it has been rolled out. Left to itself, the system will become unwieldy, with random fields added and filled with old data. Spring clean the system regularly, cleaning off old fields that clutter screens and deleting old data. Make sure new hires understand and use the system.

Many of these guidelines share a common theme: good practice must come from the top. If a sales or services manager uses the system to manage his or her team actively, then adoption in that team will be successful. Only if the whole management team jointly agrees that the CRM system is a key part of meeting the organisation’s objectives and then uses and is seen to use it themselves will the full benefits be realised.

7. Keeping it simple

Keep the design and technology as simple as you can. The simpler the design, the easier it will be used, and the simpler the underlying technology, the less chance of something going wrong.

8. Delegating responsibility

Make it somebody’s responsibility to own the data and ensure it’s correct and complete. This could be split across more than one person: the sales administrators for the sales teams and a marketing communications person for the marketing data. A good sales administrator will nag salespeople to fill the source field in and ensure that dead leads get recycled back into marketing, that addresses are complete and that PAs don’t get emailed. E

9. Ensuring success

If the CEO and the VP of Sales use the system and are seen to use the system, then that culture has a chance of permeating the organisation. A real-time dashboard showing sales this month can help win their hearts!

10. Making the right choices

The right choice for you will ultimately be a compromise between price and functionality versus ease of use. That’s a philosophical choice that only you and your organisation can make. There’s no “best practice”, only bad practice.

About Spotler CRM

Spotler CRM is designed for small and medium-sized businesses or departments of larger organisations who want a simple, easy-to-use online CRM sales, support and marketing system. With over 18,000 customers worldwide, Spotler is one of the world’s largest providers of Cloud CRM systems. Customers range from single-user to 200-user systems and include the Red Cross, the Royal Academy of Arts, government agencies and the NHS, as well as thousands of small and medium-sized companies.

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