There is no question that the SMB market space has become a key battleground for customer relationship management suppliers. With a wealth of software offerings available from such heavy hitters as Sage, Salesforce.com, Microsoft and Siebel, there is no shortage of options or marketing dollars to convey the speed and simplicity of the path to CRM success.
The vision is undoubtedly an appealing one. CRM technology allows companies to automate customer-facing activities such as sales, marketing and service within a single database, and in so doing produces such desirable outputs as enhanced customer knowledge and service, more effective marketing, increased sales and more immediate and comprehensive management reporting.
For those who get it right, CRM technology provides a high-return route to sustained competitive advantage - an attractive proposition in a world where product and service differentiation is becoming harder and more transient.
However, for many the results have been less than compelling. Unlike many of their larger counterparts, SMBs have generally managed to get their systems up and running but have struggled with data quality issues and inconsistent usage. The reality, in general, has fallen well short of the expectation.
At the heart of the problem is a tendency for buyers and sellers to focus almost exclusively on the single dimension of the technology itself. The prevailing philosophy has been that success is largely a function of picking the right software. Choose well and you can sit back and enjoy the spoils.
Although product selection is undoubtedly important, it is probably not as important as two other dimensions that have historically received less attention. First, that the system will need to be set up in a way that enhances the operation of the business and second, that staff will need to use the system in a consistent and structured manner.
Neither area is as simple as it sounds. The introduction of an enabling technology such as CRM means that existing business processes will need to be adapted and new processes introduced to capitalise on the new capabilities. This re-modelling of the operation of the business itself can demand high levels of executive involvement and brings a whole new set of skills into the implementation which traditional CRM suppliers may not be structured to provide.
Equally, user adoption cannot be taken for granted and it is here that many projects have foundered. Effective systems rely on consistent comprehensive data entry and CRM is no exception. It does not take non-compliance by many to invalidate the outputs for all. The fact that the technology is being introduced into areas of the business that have not been systemised and have an inbuilt tendency towards individualism makes this a not insubstantial challenge.
A greater appreciation of the inherent complexities involved in extracting value from CRM should foster an increasing emphasis on planning. Careful preparation prior to initiating a project will go a long way towards minimising risks and maximising the rewards.
Particular attention should be given to defining business objectives and the deliverables by which success can be measured. A detailed analysis of the business requirements and their relative priorities should be undertaken before technology selection to minimise the potential of a mismatch between your needs and the capabilities of the technology.
Specific strategies should be in place to address adoption issues and thorough consideration given to the internal and external resources necessary to reach your destination. As in air travel, it is wise to know in advance that you have enough fuel in the tank to complete the journey.
Richard Boardman is founder and managing director of independent consultancy Mareeba CRM Consulting