Implementing a CRM: best practices for avoiding the pitfalls

The road to CRM-hell is paved with good intentions. Read our guide for common pitfalls and some practical advice on how to avoid them

Implementing a new CRM can be a difficult undertaking. In fact a study cited in Harvard business Review in 2018 found that one third of all CRM projects fail. 


The only thing at Fluid we find surprising about this is how low the failure rate is: oft-quoted figures tend to show that around two thirds of all major systems implementations fail, and this has remained steady throughout my 20+ year career.

What is failure though, in this context? When you dig in to these recurring studies, you tend to find that failure is defined along the lines of not providing the anticipated benefits, or the project not meeting the expectations of those involved.

Common causes of failure

In other words, failure is often not one of the technology and its capability. Failure is more often down to the business context and human factors around how the project was executed, like:
  • Was the system configured to meet the highest priorities and must have features or did the project get distracted by 'shiny' new functionality that was ultimately less important?
  • Were clear business goals for the system established at the outset and was the system designed to meet them?
  • Were business users and senior stakeholders engaged throughout the design and implementation, and bought in to the vision and solution?
  • Did business users champion, adopt and embrace the new system, or work around it?
  • Did the business define what a best practice sales process looks like first, before looking at how the CRM could help? Or did the tail wag the dog?

So how do you avoid joining the masses of those saying their CRM project was a failure.

We think that there are two key pieces of advice. And we think these two pieces of advice are so foundational to success for any 'IT project' that we've adopted them as two of our foundational principles that we apply to everything we do.

1) Focus on business outcomes, not just technology deliverables

2) Consider people, process, then technology, in that order

So what do we mean by these two pieces of advice? The first point is around understanding that nobody should be in the business of implementing a new system for its own sake. New systems get implemented for a reason, and those reasons must be rooted in the business outcomes you're trying to achieve.

Group 122

For a CRM implementation project to succeed it needs a well defined vision for how you want sales, marketing, customer service to be. It needs to clearly understand where you are now and where you are trying to get to. This ideally should include some measurable KPIs or outcomes that you are looking to improve, like sales, customer satisfaction, baselined so you can evaluate if you have succeeded or not.

The project then needs to be aligned around achieving these outcomes, not just getting the technology component over the line. That means business engagement, change management, solution adoption, training and continuous improvement need to be part of the plan.

Which brings us nicely onto the second principle, which addresses how you get there. Your starting point has to be engaging with people. Getting their buy in to the change, leveraging their subject matter expertise of the process and the problems with it, in order to help design the solutions, some of which will be delivered by the technology, some of which will be process policies and behaviours around the system.

Then having developed, configured, tested, and standing ready to implement the 'technology' - a CRM which meets your high priority requirements, and has your data in it - you'll need to work back from the technology to roll out the new processes that you need to embed around it, train users in this new approach, lead them through the change, and have them champion and embed the new ways of working into their everyday behaviours.

Sounds easy right? What might achieving these grandiose principles look like at a practical level? Our Project Manager Andrew McGuinness has condensed his experience into 5 key tips for ensuring success.

CRM implementatin success

5 key tips for CRM implementation success

1) Stakeholder engagement Locking in the key accountable stakeholders from the start is essential. Often CRM project failure is due to lack of support from senior executives. Buy in and accountability from senior leaders is essential, speeds up decision making and sends message of priority to the business.

As a CRM can cover multiple domains such as marketing, sales and customer service, you'll need representation from each of these areas are in scope, but you'll also need to clearly have one senior responsible owner or sponsor (often the Sales or Commercial director) who gets to call the overall shots otherwise the project will get pulled in different directions.

Having the business and end users fully engaged through the full E2E journey is also a must. End users at a grassroots level are the ones most likely to be using the system the most, and so it needs to be designed with them in mind, making their jobs easier, otherwise they simply won't engage with it and adoption will decline over time.

It must be clear that a CRM project is a business project not purely I.T.

2) Scoping - A good business vision for what you are trying to achieve is an essential precursor to any systems deployment. This needs to be translated into a strong project scope, documented in a project initiation document (PID), project charter or business case.

These documents need to outline the anticipated benefits and desired business outcomes, which areas of the business, current systems, processes, people etc are in the scope of the project and which aren't.

It should outline the project team with clear roles and responsibilities. It should flag any key risks, deadlines, outline timescales and budget for completion (although these will obviously be refined as the project progresses).

3) Planning – the planning phase will take all of this into account and document in actionable steps to delivery. CRM can often be made overcomplicated and this is against its very nature. Proper planning and transition phases including stage gateways are essential, with achievable measurable goals for each stage.

Doing a work-breakdown exercise with the project team and your CRM implementation partner(s) to help drive out tasks and deliverables and understand the scale of the challenge is a good idea here.

And build in plenty of contingency - your understanding of what is required and how quickly it can be delivered will continually improve as you move through the project.

3) Overall Governance Structure –  Weekly project meetings, plan run throughs, RAID logs, communications, resource and budget burn down are a must.

You will probably be implementing the CRM using a third party solution provider so its essential that you establish a clear and factual view of how well they are delivering against their part of the plan and have the the right governance around them, so you can hold them to account.

Your governance structure also has to make sure you and the business are playing their part too and are adequately engaged in scope, design, testing, and implementation.

A frequent cause for CRM project failure is the business believing they can just throw their requirements over the fence to IT or the third party provider and then come back a few months later and the solution will have been built to perfectly match.

4) Data migration - Data migration is not to be underestimated when planning the implementation. A new system with additional capabilities often requires better and more complete data than the business has been able to get away with using so far, and often will throw out issues from data quality which may stop it from working altogether.

Data is a business asset, which means that only business users are likely to be able to ensure the data is accurate, complete, and correct - IT often don't have the business knowledge to make these decisions.

So you'll need to plan for data migration and involve the business from a data quality perspective, as well as IT for the technical migration of it into the new system.

5) Training / internal teams / collaboration / user engagement - Landing the new system effectively once it is built and tested is down to good change management. People have an emotional reaction to change and need to be guided through it with a steady and reassuring hand.

Look to turn the business subject matter and process experts that have been contributing to the earlier stages of the project, into super users or systems champions. Then having them champion the new system and processes among their peers, lead training, field enquiries and requests for help from end users, will make a massive difference.

This will be made easier if, as we suggested previously, you've put your best and most capable people on the project as these people are more likely to command the respect of their peers and be natural leaders that others follow.

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