Avoiding CRM Pitfalls

The advantages of a robust customer relationship management (CRM) system are compelling. CRM helps firms track all of their client contacts including project histories, updates resumes with a mouse click, and can help reduce proposal preparation time by 50% or more. But implementing a CRM system isn't a quick or easy task. Here's a look at a few common pitfalls and how to avoid them.

Kraig Kern, director of marketing for 200-person consulting engineering firm W.K. Dickson & Co., Inc. (Charlotte, NC) was two months into a CRM implementation project, and the effort was losing momentum. After an initial burst of enthusiasm, the project to create an easily accessible client database that would greatly simplify and shorten the process to create proposals, was in danger of failing. Although the Deltek Advantage CRM software provided a bridge to port the firm's existing project database to Advantage, the data transfer was turning out to be more complicated than expected.

For starters, all project titles in the firm's database were in capital letters. When a proposal was created using that data, the project titles would appear in all capital letters- not an acceptable prospect— unless Kern could figure out a way to change the caps to lower case letters. Kern had to transfer the data to Microsoft's Access database program to do that. Then, he ported the data from that program to Advantage. That process alone took a whole week.

Don't underestimate the time and effort to populate the database

Next came the labor-intensive job of inputting data not included in the firm's accounting system, such as discipline codes and the office location of the key people who worked on each project, into the CRM system. Kern assigned one person from each of the firm's six main branch offices to input the data. These marketing workers were some of the project's most enthusiastic supporters, but as the tedium of entering data by hand set in after a few weeks, even they began to lose interest. With many other duties to accomplish and their bosses beginning to resent the time the data entry was taking, the whole project was bogging down.

W.K. Dickson's experience is common on CRM projects. Many firms find that getting the system up and running takes longer than expected. But Kern had a strategy for getting things back on track. His solution was to hire a data entry temp to input the data to get the system up and running. "We've spent $10,000 on this thing and all we're going to get is a better way to generate mailing labels unless we do something," Kern told firm honchos. Kern got the go-ahead to hire a temp and eight weeks later, the system was ready for a test drive. "If I had to do it over," Kern says, "I would have hired another temp."

Many CRM projects falter because firms expect the task of transferring data from their existing databases to the CRM database to be much easier than it usually is. Once a CRM system is set up and the required data entered, the odds for a successful project are good. W.K. Dickson's struggle to get to that point is typical.

Data fields must be standardized

Another common CRM pitfall is a poorly designed data template. CRM systems offer many options and many ways to present and enter data. This flexibility is necessary because no two firms record data in the same way, but it also complicates implementations. "All CRM systems have the ability to create standards for data fields," says David Lacy, leader of ZweigWhite's AEC Systems Solutions group. "But if you don't do that in a logical, consistent way, the system can become very unwieldy." CRM project leaders should carefully plan what fields to include in the user interface and how to ensure that they are filled in consistently.

For example, if you have a "Project Type" field, all users should use the same term for publics school projects— "K-12 Schools" instead of some entering them as "Elementary Schools" and others as "Secondary Schools." This issue can be more of a challenge in firms that have multiple offices, particularly if some of those offices represent acquisitions that have categorized data differently from the parent firm. Using pull-down menus of standardized responses is a good way to overcome that problem. W.K. Dickson used that approach, and it makes all data entries in several important categories consistent. The key is to make sure you have all of the necessary options under each menu.

Don't overwhelm users with too many fields

Another important issue is to figure out how many and what type of fields to include in a CRM system. If the system requires users to enter more information than is really necessary, users could grow frustrated with having to spend too much time entering data. But if it doesn't include basic data for proposals, for instance, then its ability to automate proposal preparation will be diminished. The ideal is to only include the information that is necessary for the most common purposes, and exclude the "nice-to-haves."

Gensler (San Francisco, CA), a 1,650-person architectural firm, took a look at available CRM packages last year and decided that what was available would have been too complicated and difficult to implement for a firm of its size. CIO Ken Sanders decided his best option was to scale down the original wish list of features and write a proprietary web-based application. "What we really need," an executive said, "is a mailing list on steroids." That's essentially what Sanders and his IT team designed.

The application, although not a full-featured CRM system, has many CRM-like attributes. It has been up and running for about six months and contains some 30,000 contacts. The application keeps track of client contact information and allows users to make brief notes for each entry. The system gives the firm a single, standard client contact database that allows everybody in the company to add new contacts and update information. The application lets users choose which of the firm's marketing communications materials— newsletter, holiday cards, direct mail pieces, etc.— to send to each contact.

These features are well appreciated in marketing, but the system doesn't offer the automated proposal preparation features that W.K. Dickson's system possesses. Sanders says Gensler is looking at some more robust systems, including Deltek's Vision, and expects the firm to move to a CRM system that does offer automated proposal preparation within a few years. For now, though, Sanders is pleased with Gensler's current CRM effort. The main benefits have been the addition of a central database that holds client information at all of Gensler's domestic and international offices, and the automation of the firm's mailing list which all employees can update easily.

Though, the IT trade press is rife with tales of massive CRM failures that were too complex, clearly some firms are having CRM successes. Sometimes keeping a project simple is preferable because the odds of success are better. "When you try to change the world too quickly, that's when you get into trouble," Sanders says. The marketing world is changing as CRM continues to make inroads in the AEC industry. As your firm investigates this technology, be aware that implementation often takes longer and is more difficult than expected. But if you can cut the time to research and produce proposals in half like W.K. Dickson did with CRM, the effort is worth it.— PETER FABRIS (pfabris@zweigwhite.com)

Box: Sidestepping common CRM pitfalls:

Scrub your data. Many firms have more than one client/project database. All of that information has to be standardized so that CRM entries are consistent. This task is usually the most tedious in a CRM implementation. Be prepared to dedicate staff to this task. Also, hiring temporary data entry helps speed the process.

Make it user-friendly. Any CRM system will only be as effective as the quality and quantity of data it contains. Make sure the user interface is simple and effective; otherwise users may resist entering information. Consult with users in many different functional areas to make sure the interface contains the fields they need and presents them in a logical, easy-to-understand manner.