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Ian Tomlin

Why CRM Systems Drive Sales People Crazy

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When they first came on the scene with SIEBEL, Customer Relationship Management systems were supposed to grow your business 'one customer at a time'. Like Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems they promised a rosy future for business people of being able to deliver a 'single view' of customers - so that all of the systems in an enterprise could work together to serve up a coherent appreciation of customer conversations, account history - and most importantly, what mattered most to them (to understand 'customer value').

After decades of CRM implementations, most sales and marketing people are left cold by the impact of CRM. It simply hasn't delivered on its promises.

An agile enterprise can only achieve greater customer value - and therefore more potential to grow - if it understands what customers actually want. This insight can not be gathered OFFLINE by market research because it creates a false picture of the real-world. The only way to really understand customers and their needs is to gather insights progressively through day-to-day interactions.

In most businesses, it is the CRM system that is meant to perform this role. And CRM systems are meant to increase revenues through higher sales. That means to get the right CRM solution, the stakeholders you need to convince first of its value are the sales people.

In this document I've summarized the main underperforming feature areas of CRM systems that drive sales people (and sales managers) crazy. Next to each subject I've crudely marked the performance of CRM systems today (out of 10 when 10 is high) to show where in my experience underperformance normally exists.


Time. Sales people are short of it and they're keen to maximize it. That means not investing time on sales opportunities unlikely to close, not spending time on unnecessary travel and not keying data into databases without good reason. Sales people want to know how best to prioritize their time to get maximum return. They know that CRM software SHOULD help them to achieve this.

7 Recording contact activities
Sales people speak to a large number of people and they need help to remember and record the detail. They want to know who they spoke to, when and why so they can always find the contacts they've spoken to and they're armed with what was discussed and what outcomes were agreed. It's normally very difficult with CRM systems to obtain a timeline view of activities that brings together all of the actions and activities of the salesperson - which is extremely helpful for the salesperson to audit their personal productivity.

7 Scheduling and coordinating meetings and events

Sales people are normally responsible for managing events and meetings so they are big users of time management and calendaring tools. Having the ability to easily schedule meetings and add custom calendar items like events, tasks, to-dos, conferences etc. is very important to them.

6 Qualifying and grouping contacts

Every contact in a sales contact database is different: Different in terms of their potential as a prospect, their degree of influence on a sales process, the nature of the relationship with the sales person, the strength of the relationship with the salesperson, the reason why the relationship exists in the first place. These nuances of relationship ties means that sales people need to categorize contacts in ways that make sense to them (in addition to the typical demographic and industry sector views that marketing people want). Therefore, tagging systems are a useful vehicle to add richer context to contact records.

[Take a typical example of a salesperson wanting to select a group of contacts with common needs. Perhaps they want to send a quick email to this group - and afterwards, perhaps they want to follow-up the emails to progress discussions. With a typical CRM system that integrates with email, they can create a group of contacts as a category perhaps but all of the contact and progress information of this micro-canvassing activity is held on each of the contact records - so it doesn't provide any 'group' view of activities. Should the salesperson wish to report on these activities to a supervisor, a cut-and-paste activity is required, probably into a spreadsheet or word processor document.]

6 Notifications and alerts

Most CRM systems are good at alerting sales people to contact activities they should perform (this is after-all the main motivator for procuring most CRM systems). The better systems will enable sales people to create customizable hotlists and custom flags. Even so, CRM systems aren't very good at altering sales people to what they don't already know. The notifications you receive as a user are normally those that you've created yourself.

5 Setting the right balance between minimal data entry with maximum productivity

Sales people want fast data entry of 'business card' information on the prospects and contacts they meet. They want a system that enables them to plan next actions and reminders to progress sales. Most CRM systems seem to demand a high level of effort to capture data and then fail to deliver the helpful 'prompts' and productivity enablers that sales people value. So, for a salesperson, the obvious question is "Does this CRM system make me more productive or less productive?" More advanced CRM systems require data about accounts, organizations groups etc. to be entered before contacts can be added to create relationships between the contacts, their organizations, organization groups and accounts - all very sensible, but all of this complexity can make it impossible for sales people to simply add a simple contact with the smallest effort. [Features like auto scanning of business cards are very helpful to minimize data entry overheads. It's also helpful that every salesperson is able to access and use a common database system and have the opportunity to check to see if a contact already exists before they add another one to avoid double-entry of contacts - or worst case two sales people contacting the same contact.]

5 Making the task of working with data easier

When salespeople are at their laptop calling and communicating, desk space comes at a premium. They need a 'cockpit' view of everything they need to see in a single view at any point in time. Very often an editable table view is preferred to lots of forms. Most sales people want a series of views at different stages of a sales engagement process - contact card, editable list view, filtered search views, contact record profile views.

4 Account management

There are different types of sales people. Some are responsible for only a handful of major accounts and need to know everything about the accounts they manage. Today there are some good sales methods for managing accounts but most systems fall short in providing a WORKSPACE that brings together all aspects of account information management into a single cockpit.

4 Pipeline management and forecasting

So many CRM systems are poor at pipeline management and forecasting that results in salespeople and sales managers reverting to spreadsheets to manage their pipeline the way they need to for their business. This is sometimes because the pipeline forecasting requirements of the business demand such a high level of customization that a spreadsheet becomes easier - but as soon as data is entered into a spreadsheet, this insight becomes hidden from the organization.

4 Mobility

Sales people are always on the move and they need to be able to update records and keep in touch no matter where they are. While most CRM solutions will provide the ability to update records locally and then synchronize with server management systems later, online browser based systems afford the possibilities of always on communications.

3 Social networking enablers

The world is moving towards social networking platforms and social operating systems but CRM systems are locked into a world where email is assumed to be the only conduit between salespeople and their contacts. New CRM systems need to harness data insights available from popular social networking systems and aggregate this content in ways that makes it easier for salespeople to harness it. Capturing conversations conducted via online web-chat is also useful in developing richer insights of contact activity without demanding re-keying of conversation content.

3 Access to communications and collaboration enablers

Salespeople are communicators and they want access to the best tools to share their thoughts and ideas from their desktop, to communicate with clients using a mix of communications vehicles - phone, email, SMS, VoIP, web-chat etc. - and all of these communications options need to be available. Sales people also want to make sure that THEY are available to BE contacted should customers or prospects want to make contact.

3 Sales people as 'micro-marketers'

Sales people today have to be micro-marketers. They typically hold the responsibility of organizing their own micro campaigns, managing their own contact lists and follow up their sales leads with sales literature and follow-up correspondence. This means sales people need access to simple campaign list creation, batch label printing, mail merge and email marketing features.

2 Managing tenders and quotation processes

When businesses need to produce tenders and quotations, often this work is done using word processor and spreadsheet systems that are completely offline to the CRM system. The best most CRM systems can offer is to provide a link to a document repository containing this information.

1 Telling sales people things they don't already know about their accounts/territories

Sales people want to know if a major news story breaks on one of their accounts (perhaps a new appointment or the announcement of a merger etc), or when a new company has been created in their designated sales territory. This 'new news' is very helpful for sales people but today most salespeople have to source these insights themselves. Sales people often want to know when contracts are due for renewal or which products any new products are displacing. It's good to know when projects are behind schedule or accounts have a poor credit history or are on stop! Given that much of this content is already known but exists on different systems it's normal for stand-alone CRM systems not to flag this REALLY IMPORTANT information.

In summary, for sales people CRM systems fall short in areas of:

  • Time - Giving more sales time than they consume

  • Serving up new insights about what customers want or might buy

  • Providing the means to always be contactable through mobile connectivity

  • Their level of customization and integration (to fit the business/integrate)

  • Social networking enablement

  • Micro-marketing tools

  • Managing the sales lifecycle --> prospect - quote - sell - order process - account manage - new things to sell!

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Great article Ian!

You're right, CRM often misses the mark for sales people.

I find that most often, management fails to identify the key workflows that they hope to improve, automate, etc...

Essentially, management is hoping for all sorts of metrics but, the sales people use the CRM inconsistently for reasons you've identified, which then makes the metrics inconsistent.

No one is happy.

The answer is to get management and sales expectations identified and aligned before selecting a solution.

I have yet to find a CRM that doesn't frustrate me. I'd like to see a drag and drop desktop that allows me to decided which of the above tools (you nailed them all) I need.

Though a way to easily ADD new fields would be great ways for users to personalize their CRM. A plug in type application would be great, allowing users to select which to use (to ovoid wasting time with clutter). Also affordability. I would pay a monthly fee for a hosted solution that syncs with my desktop

I think they failed because people were trying to make them to complicated or people were just too disappointed with them and decided that a simple database was good enough.

Couldn’t agree more! CRM solutions are a must in today’s highly competitive marketplace. And, with the advent of social media, it’s all the more critical to have a strategy in place that will homogenize, harmonize and centralize a company’s core operations. CRM solutions are designed to do just that: to track, monitor and leverage all customer-facing data and departments. It’s a process where a company commits to more transparency and with it, a more solid understanding of what’s going in with each customer as they pass through, interact, or approach your company. Companies without a CRM solution can’t possible maintain the same level of customer intelligence and loyalty.

My blog focuses on agile organizational design and related information management technologies such as cloud computing, net.working, social collaboration, data integration and meshing, business insights and code-free applications design.

Ian Tomlin

Ian Tomlin is a marketing consultant, writer and speaker on the subject of agile organizational design and associated technologies.


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