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Sales technology - inside out, or outside in?

Published on 14/10/03 at 04:08pm

What does that mean? Well, think about it: CRM systems, which are meant to give the business, and in particular, its sales people, a holistic view of the customer, probably give more value to the business overall when they are used to give management a holistic view of sales efforts. In other words, a CRM system, which is meant to distribute information across the organisation, is often being used as a command-and-control mechanism.

Nothing wrong with that. I mean, we never really believed the touchy-feely stuff anyway, did we? The benefits were always going to be hard benefits: more revenue, plus lower costs of sales, equals higher margins equals happier management. Customers of successfully implemented CRM projects see quantifiable benefits, too. Faster response times, plus better support, equals lower buying costs and using costs, while self-service features mean that data input errors are reduced.

Welllll...up to a point. But remember the old IT adage: GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. If the information that is entered is untrustworthy, then the aggregate of information is plainly going to be unreliable at best and downright wrong at worst.

According to a recent survey by AvantGo, less than half of sales reps are using their CRM/Sales Force Automation system the way sales management would like, while 21% are not using it at all.

We've looked before at reasons for CRM failure, and there are five, which failed projects suffer from either individually or in combination with each other:

1. There is no link to strategy, which means that someone went out and bought an unsuitable application.

2. It isnt integrated with (in plain English, it doesnt work with) with existing legacy systems.

3. Lack of cross-functional process orientation. A CRM will often expose the different and incompatible ways in which two departments within the same organisation address the same issues, so that old information from two departments cant be reconciled.

4. Inadequate skills and resources, which mean that users arent trained to use it properly. The increased admin burden, both in learning and using the system, also east into sales time and lowers productivity.

5. User acceptance is low, either because the system is hard to use or because it delivers no obvious improvement over what was there before.

Failure 1 is strategic, and basically stems from a failure to identify user needs clearly and map them on to the available vendor offerings. It may also be caused by 'flavour of the month' syndrome, which afflicts all industries, but pharma more than most. A software product is bought by one company, usually a 'thought leader' company, which gives a strong endorsement to the product among other potential customers, who then either ignore or short-circuit the selection process -  "BigPharma thinks it is good enough to buy, so we should too" - and sales for the lucky vendor start to snowball.

Failure 2 is also a failure to prepare properly. It generally means that no one audited the main legacy systems to find out what nasty little foibles they might have. The third type of failure is particularly acute in pharma, with its well-entrenched silo mentality, and requires fundamental business process re-engineering.

Failures 4 and 5 can be dealt with, youll be pleased to hear, by fixing usability.

The fix involves a favourite hobbyhorse of this column: usability is paramount to the success of any system, web site, internal process, car, video recorder, you name it. Make it too difficult and it simply won't get used. In the case of CRM, the bigger and more complex the package, the harder it is to operate, and so the less likely it is to be used.

Failure 4's point about 'inadequate skills and resources' for training is really only an issue when the system is unintuitive, it works differently from the way a reasonably intelligent person would expect it to, and so users need to 'learn' a new system. The very fact that a system needs to be 'learned' automatically implies that it has poor usability. Steve Krug sums up the key to good usability in the title of his well-known usability manual: "Don't Make Me think!"

Failure 5 about user acceptance is pretty well known, but gets more lip service than proper attention. IBM estimates that every £ invested in ease of use returns between £10 and £100 in benefits...a pretty good ROI by anyone's standards.

So is CRM the way forward? As it currently stands in its unusable state, I think not. Is a usable CRM the way forward? Oh yes.

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