As marketers discover the strategic and financial potential of new technology, the question often emerges about the best way to "get in the game." While marketing may envision technology-enabled customer interactions maximizing share of wallet for each customer, the CEO may simply see red – the red of future losses caused by excessive technology investments from which it will be difficult to determine any clear benefit. Faced with this challenge, many marketers may refrain from burning unnecessary political capital and just return to standard marketing approaches.

But I would ask if these are the only two options – extravagant investments or return to the old marketing programs once again? Is another path available to provide marketers with the benefits of the new technology without breaking the bank (and potentially the company as a whole)?

If we learn anything from past CRM burnouts, the key to success may actually not involve automating customer interactions at all, at least at first. This statement may strike many in the CRM industry as heresy – after all, the promise of such automation has driven technology investments over the past five years to record levels. However, abundant failures in the industry may suggest another course. Let’s explore one example in depth to illustrate.

Typical CRM implementation scenarios begin with the desire to automate a function such as sales force interaction. Typical goals usually include automated lead tracking, customized mailings, identification of cross-sell opportunities and reduced paperwork, resulting in increased sales prospecting time and accuracy. In addition, the company may wish to improve pipeline management and sales forecasting.

What typically occurs from that point illustrates the issues in CRM implementations. Companies begin by looking at software which results in sticker shock and a laundry list of enhancements to the customer data and technical infrastructure necessary to make such a system work, including additional supporting software and hardware. By the time the project reaches management for approval, the cost has risen multiple times and the ability to achieve the required ROI has become more speculative. The more the development team works on the project, the higher the price tag seems to grow. Eventually, the company either suboptimizes by purchasing a minimal package, or the project is actually approved and then faces time and cost overruns that drive project managers and even CIOs out of their jobs. What is worse, as the implementation proceeds, the sales force realizes that management can use the new system as a club to berate them about leads, closures and call results at a far more granular level than before. In that environment, sales refuses to participate and the entire project comes to a standstill. Over time, the project begins to be treated as a joke, "Oh yeah, the project that was supposed to help us make our numbers two years ago, right?"

More and more CRM projects have arrived at the same place, two years down the road with no end in sight, contributing to the statistic that more than 60 percent never reach any sort of meaningful financial hurdle and 20 percent of CRM projects are abandoned entirely.

It doesn’t speak well for customer interaction automation, does it? And this example represents one of the most mature technologies in CRM, sales force automation. When dealing with newer technologies such as Web site interaction management or marketing automation, the same issues appear, only more so.

Let’s return to our example and, particularly, to the goals and objectives that first led management to begin to explore sales force automation. In the beginning, one of the goals was to drive increased cross-sell by providing sales with current, accurate information about clients and prospects, including account expansion opportunities. If you go back to the original story line, you will see that this goal was the one that provided most of the ROI for the entire initiative. Sure, reduced paperwork would permit more calls, but sales already made time for any sales calls that had a high closure chance, didn’t they?

Now, let me pose a question: What was required to achieve that specific goal? I know that lots of other "nice to haves" were on the list; but I ask again, how could that specific goal be achieved and how quickly could that goal be attained, if it were the only one prioritized?

If the goal were solely to provide sales with current and accurate information, a management reporting application could provide reports and alerts based on the information as it becomes available. Those alerts could be delivered via e- mail, which means through phone and pager as well as PC. Reports could be automatically delivered in Excel to the desktop with the key numbers highlighted. Not too scary, right? Based on the type of data needed and where that data is located in the company systems, some key information could be delivered within three to four months, if not sooner.

To provide sales with the most valuable information, cross-sell opportunities within current accounts and enhanced targeting of new opportunities, the company could turn to a non-conventional approach – do it manually at the start. Management could hire an external group or begin to develop an internal team to provide customer analysis by leveraging available data in a down-and-dirty approach to adding value. This team, which in many successful companies is growing in size and strategic importance, would be chartered with the goal of analyzing customer information and developing ways to deliver that information to the sales force in a timely manner that adds value.

Even if the information is created in Access and delivered on paper that is faxed to the salesperson in the field, the goal of driving critical information to the right sales people at the right time would have been achieved. A side benefit of the customer analysis effort would be the ability to baseline sales performance and then measure incremental lift from the new information. In addition, the effort would benefit from teaming with sales to document current sales processes, identifying the most valuable times for leveraging customer information and then delivering that information in the appropriate format for sales success.

What have we done in this example? In this down-and- dirty approach, the results are driven by highly manual processes, customized for each individual salesperson – approaches which CRM technology is created to eliminate. What else have we done here? Let me be specific – 1) created clear, demonstrable value in the short term; 2) quantified that value to provide ROI measures; and, even more importantly, 3) documented the sales process and inserted critical customer information in partnership with the sales organization.

That was supposed to be the goal of a CRM implementation, right?

This approach is not designed to eliminate the need for CRM – in fact, you could argue that this approach is CRM. Instead, the approach is designed to drive clear value in financial results and in sales commitment, all of which make "true" CRM implementations possible. By piloting the business model in a low-cost, highly manual method, changes can also be made without million-dollar implications. When the business model, process and results have been adjusted to drive some level of success, that effort should be automated. Automation provides consistency, scalability and accountability over the longer term and is the appropriate strategy for any growing organization, once the initial hurdles have been overcome.

The "shoot-for-the-moon" approach common in CRM failures often begins with objective creep. Trying to achieve too many goals clouds the real business justification. By keeping that justification in focus, the team can evaluate all costs relative to that target, at least in the short- term. Manual processes can fine-tune the business model with low- cost adjustments and help keep the "focus on focus" rather than encourage scope creep.

Now, there is unquestionably risk to this approach. The main risk is that management may appreciate the manual results but be unwilling to commit the budget to automation. The team will, therefore, find themselves in an untenable situation with manual processes that do not scale and were never intended to be a long-term solution. To help avoid such a dilemma, one approach is to address the issue up front and gain management buy- in on the financial model to support an automation effort before manual prototyping begins. If management agrees to the approach and if the results are real, automation in some form should be possible.

While there is risk in the manual, down- and-dirty approach, I would argue that there is even more risk in seeking a highly automated solution early on, when business objectives are uncertain and business processes unclear. By seeking a more flexible approach, the team can achieve real business results, integrate into the business process and then create buy-in with the marketers and salespeople who will operate the application. This approach will not solve the common cold, nor drive world peace; instead, this effort will drive value in the short term and hopefully, begin to create a real foundation for CRM efforts to build upon, a foundation of results and belief that can lead to success. Hey, maybe that would work for world peace too??

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