Opinion: Are companies responsible for CRM failures?

Mention CRM these days and the most common response you'll receive will have something to do with failure - usually because of some fault of the vendor. But blaming vendors for CRM failures is simplistic and incomplete. Much of the accountability resides with the users of CRM technology. That's right - it's your fault.

More often it's a failure of planning, and a lack of specificity, that dooms CRM initiatives. Successful CRM is about putting strategy before software. So before you embark on your CRM journey (or if you're stuck somewhere along the path), consider the following common mistakes:

* Goals are too broad. All too often a CRM initiative within a company is a "boil the ocean" exercise involving everything that must be done to get to a customer-centric nirvana. Nothing wrong with having vision, but the tactical steps necessary to begin traveling the path toward that vision are often missing.

* Strategies are too generic. CRM strategies must be business-specific. The CRM industry - analysts and consultants as well as vendors - have been telling us that every company can use technology the same way to gain the same results. Nothing could be further from the truth.

* Implementations are too software-centric. Technology can and should play a role in enhancing customer relationships - but a supporting role, not a leading one. Of course, with IT analysts, consultants and vendors leading the charge, it's not surprising that the market's message has been "software first," but that thinking does everyone a disservice.

* The term CRM is backwards. Who should be managing your relationships with customers: you or the customers? When you think things through, you'll find it's the latter. Stop trying to manage the customer relationship and let the customer do it. Learning how to effectively respond to their needs and demands is ultimately what will drive success.

Ignore the analysts and pundits trying to scare you away from CRM with their failure statistics. The question is not whether to get involved with CRM, but how. Specifically, the question is: How do you turn your general desire to enhance customer relationships into an action plan? How do you take your organization from "We want happier customers" to "We have a plan to reduce customer service costs by 40 percent by moving 60 percent of our incoming requests to self-service while improving our first-call resolution rates by 25 percent"?

You can't implement software to fix a problem if you don't have a good handle on what the problem is and a specific plan to fix it. Before you go blaming the software vendor - or before you even think about software - figure out what you want to do and why you want to do it. With such a business-first mindset, the technology decisions become straightforward and obvious, and the path to success much more clear.

Selland is managing director of Reservoir Partners, an end user-focused relationship management research and consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass.

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