The secret to CRM success – keep it simple

Make CRM too hard and it will fail, says longtime industry figure Mike Muhney

You can have the best intentions, understand of the value of CRM and be prepared to spend big money to buy and develop it, but at the end of the day, there's one key group that can sabotage it — its users, the sales force.

That's the view of American software entrepreneur and executive Mike Muhney, who has been involved with CRM since the 1980s.

"Sales people want things simple, so a well-intentioned but poorly developed CRM user interface is, more often than not, a burden to the sales person," says Muhney.

"You're making their job more difficult."

Muhney is currently executive vice president and GM of international operations at Aquire.

Aquire, formerly called TimeVision, is a vendor of "internal CRM," or information management within companies, Muhney says.

Internal CRM has been his focus since he joined TimeVision in 2004, but he has spent most of his career in traditional outward, customer-focused CRM.

Muhney started his IT career as an IBM salesman and then worked briefly for another vendor before going into business with a friend.

That first entrepreneurial venture failed, but after returning to salaried roles with two other vendors, in 1986 he had another go at starting his own company, co-founding Contact Software, which produced the Act! contact management package.

Contact Software was acquired by Symantec in 1993, but when Symantec signalled in 1999 that it would exit CRM to focus on security, Muhney joined with others to form a company to buy it back.

By this time, Muhney was working at SalesLogix, the mid-range CRM vendor founded in 1996 by Pat Sullivan, his partner in the start-up of Contact Software.

Act! became part of SalesLogix after the 1999 buy-back and was finally sold to British CRM vendor Sage in 2001.

Muhney has been involved in CRM in many different guises since selling his holding in Contact Software in 1993; after a brief retirement, he got back into the scene and was invited to join Deloitte in 1998, when, he says, "CRM was really exploding."

At Deloitte, his role was as one of three worldwide spokesmen on CRM, which means "I helped with their CRM implementation business — my first focus was Europe and I was an ambassador, speaking on behalf of their CRM practice."

He would have stayed with Deloitte longer, he says, had the opportunity to join SalesLogix not come up in 1999.

Muhney served as executive vice president of SalesLogix, which was renamed Interact Commerce Corporation in 2000, but retained the SalesLogix name for that product line.

He "retired" again in 2001, then joined TimeVision in 2004.

All that experience leaves him in a good position to comment on what works and what doesn't when you're selling or implementing a CRM system.

His advice is simple: keep it simple.

"Too much emphasis has been placed on the product and not enough on the people," he says.

One reason for the high failure rate of CRM implementations is illustrated by the old 'how do you eat an elephant'? riddle, he says.

"The answer is 'one bite at a time."

Overly complex and ambitious CRM projects that try to bite off too much aren't much help to sales people, he says.

"The TCO gets exaggerated when you try to build Nirvana into the initial implementation."

CRM systems should be installed in measurable pieces that are analysed and defined before the next stage is embarked on, he says.

"The initial orientation should be towards simplifying the sales force's jobs, then integrating [the CRM system] with the company's other systems."

A reason so many overly complex CRM packages have been introduced in the past is that the decision to install them was management-driven, not sales staff-driven, he says.

"A lot of CRM systems were decided on from a top-down view."

While there's nothing wrong with management making a commitment to such a system, the views and needs of the sales staff have to be addressed, he says.

As for future trends in CRM, "I have a lot of interest in VoIP and see a lot of potential in convergence — it's easier to speak and listen than type."

His parting shot on the test for how well a CRM system is serving an organisation is this: "if your top sales person wasn't using CRM, would you fire them? the answer 99% of the time would be no.

"CRM is a tool for getting sales to do things more efficiently — it's not, in itself, a solution."

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