The Culture of CRM - software, systems or self?

The Culture of CRM - software, systems or self?

The concept of either supporting or creating a culture of CRM is commonly discussed. Opinions are volunteered on the subject from innumerable perspectives. They may originate from software vendors engaged in the CRM market, specialist practitioners and consultancies or general business thought leadership. 'Culture' is even, in fact often, put forward as an acceptable reason for (if not outcome) of the failure of a CRM project.

So what is a culture of CRM and how does it relate to CRM software and its implementation?

First of all let's take a step back and think about what we actually mean by culture, specifically within the business environment. The culture of a business is essentially its instinctive and demonstrable behaviour. This is derived from its organisational structure, collective expertise, operational ability to execute and its style of internal and external communications. However, culture when discussed in CRM circles often actually refers not to any of these corporate attributes but to user adoption of a CRM software application. In this context CRM has had a very hard press over the years.

In order for a company to have a culture, by definition it has to have evolved, it has been on a journey. Along the way it has gained knowledge, skills, processes, operational capacity and an ability to communicate. The acquisition of these things and their application define a business' corporate persona, its culture. Every CRM system that has ever been purchased was implemented for a reason. All too often the reason(s) will reflect superficial, symptomatic day to day manifestations of operational issues whist totally glossing over the underlying reasons. By way of example, at some point in its journey every company will suffer from 'disparate data' and this will affect its operational effectiveness. This is a common catalyst in identifying the need for a CRM system. Invariably this need will arise from the frustration of trying to pull together a multitude of spreadsheets to create a single view of a customer.

The simple fact is that consolidating data is one thing but an honest appraisal is essential as to why the data became disparate in the first place. Is there a fundamental issue with sharing data? Are there inter-departmental disconnects or politics? Are there well defined end to end prospect, client and communication processes?  Data forms a single but significant part of a CRM implementation and is such used here purely for illustrative purposes. Very often company staff will spend weeks collating data prior to handing it over to their chosen CRM delivery partner for import in to their shiny new CRM system. It is a single phase amongst a multitude of project milestones in a typical implementation. Consider then how easy it is to focus purely on the logistics of the collation and de-duplication exercise. This one area opens up a cultural can of worms when the behavioural considerations raised earlier are taken in to account.  Enough. This discussion is not about data, it's about culture. This particular CRM project milestone however provides a perfect example of the point in hand.

CRM software or services cannot create a culture, they can only support, guide and help perpetuate a culture.

For a CRM project to succeed a business must have well-conceived processes that serve its clients and business objectives. It must have a culture that supports client relationships. Each and every milestone of a CRM project will serve up similar considerations if you dare to look; and dare you must. Without such honest and introspective reflection you will simply deploy a different interface to the same problems. This is why CRM implementations have failed. It is vital to stop thinking about the culture of CRM in context of an application and start thinking how CRM can support a sound and effective culture within a business. It's about supporting people to deal with people.

So how can this be practically addressed?

It would be wrong to suggest or infer from the above that a massive business process engineering exercise should take place before any CRM software implementation is undertaken. On the contrary, quick wins are very possible and often preferable. They are only possible however when there is a clearly defined objective.

Let's take the example given earlier. If disparate data is causing an operational problem, then make the solution to that the initial project outcome. A company crippled by its own data has more to worry about in the immediate term than pipeline reporting, fancy dashboards and integration with other systems. The sales team will muddle on regardless, they have commission to earn. The consolidation of the data in its own right will provide a huge leap forward. This should be defined as the critical success factor of the project. All departments and levels of employee should engage in the discussion on how this should be achieved. This will flush out the reasons for the current condition and the political and legitimate logistical challenges that continue the status quo. This will undoubtedly include the need to maintain additional departmental data above and beyond names and addresses. It will highlight the need for transactional data such as billing or help desk activity. It will undoubtedly need to consider the personal convenience and productivity of the proposed users.

These discussions will reveal the issues, legitimate or otherwise, and engage the user community in the process and creation of a shared goal. That is cultural change that can be supported.

Assurance can be offered and timeframes agreed with the various teams that once the initial consolidation has been achieved their individual needs can start to be addressed. This approach engages and supports change where it is necessary but can also reinforce process where it is not.

A culture of CRM actually has nothing to do with user adoption of a software application. A well adopted CRM system is just symptomatic of a sound people driven culture and good process supported by technology.

For those people more used to installing software rather than accessing it, ask yourself, when did typing c:\setup.exe ever revolutionise any business?


Steve Blunn - Chief Executive, Concise CRM Limited

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