The Six Sins of CRMs

Six major pitfalls to avoid Customer Relationship Management hell.


All tools—from the ancient, humble hammer to the forthcoming, sophisticated self-driving car— help us solve some real human problem. The hammer helps us drive nails to attach one piece of wood to another. The self-driving car will help us get from here to there without paying attention to the road or parking when we arrive.

Software is no different. We set up Stripe because we need to accept payments online. We use MailChimp because we need to send updates to our audience.

But what is a CRM for?

If you ask seven people at your organization, you’re likely to get seven different, murky answers intimating some vague voodoo concept like “a single source of truth”, “knowledge transfer”, or “an all-in-one solution” rather than a well-defined system that clearly helps us with concrete goals such as acquiring more customers or raising money from donors.

Because we don’t have a straightforward understanding of what problems CRMs are supposed to help our organizations solve, we can easily commit one or all of the following six sins of CRM implementations when implementing them.

1. The World Restaurant Mistake

If I told you that a restaurant served all kinds of dishes ranging from sushi to enchiladas, you would be sure of two things: it wasn’t the best sushi, and they weren’t the best enchiladas. Any piece of software that attempts to be an all-in-one solution is sure to do all of those things poorly. The reason is simple. While MailChimp spends 100% of its time and product effort making a great mass-mailing tool, Salesforce, optimistically, spends 10%. Counterintuitively, the more features built into the CRM, the more subpar they’re likely to be. Do you want your organization using the worst in class tools just so you can have an “all-in-one” solution?

2. The Baby Clothes Trap

Friends and family buy baby clothes with buttons that take 10 minutes and three people to put on. Parents buy baby clothes with magnets that can be changed in seconds, one-handed. Managers, those usually responsible for buying the CRM, invariably think its most important feature is its reporting capabilities, even if it takes 15 hours a week to keep the data for a report up to date. Frontline sales reps actually want something that helps them close more deals faster.

3. The Tailored vs. Off-the-Rack Dilemma

Buying your next suit off the rack will save you a lot of money but it’ll never fit quite as well as one that’s tailor-made. With so many CRMs on the market, surely you ought to be able to find one that suits your organization’s needs perfectly. However, unless you want to rely on the creators of the CRM to define your business processes for you, you’ll almost inevitably make customizations and tweaks. Those, however, may cost more in time and money than the entire value of the CRM. Clearly defining your goals for the CRM will help you pick one off the rack and tailor it to your needs.

4. The Man Behind the Curtain Problem

In the Wizard of Oz, the wizard looks like an all-powerful disembodied head but is actually just a man behind a curtain. Your sales process may look like it’s defined by an all-powerful sales director. But, if you rely on a labyrinth of opaque customizations, it may actually be the Salesforce developers you hired that are defining your process. Even worse, without transparency into how the software is actually functioning, you may not know.

5. The Blank Slate Fallacy

Urban planners love to talk about the street width and block size of ideal cities, but real cities have histories and thus existing street widths and block sizes. Unless the very first thing your organization did before raising money or acquiring customers was to set up the CRM, you aren’t starting from a blank slate, either. But designers of CRMs assume you’re starting from scratch. For instance, CRMs with built-in payment systems assume that your first recurring customer will use their recurring payment form. No historical data migration can move existing recurring payments from one system to another. CRMs that let you integrate with your existing tools are rare but may be essential.

6. The Bike Shed Effect

In C. Northcote Parkinson’s most famous example of the law of triviality, a fictional committee tasked with designing a new power plant spends most of its time on a minor but easy-to-grasp issue such as the plant’s bike shed, neglecting the more difficult and complex issues of actually designing the power plant. When setting up a CRM, we tend to focus on tractable tasks like data-entry instead of difficult and painful tasks like actually contacting potential leads. If the whole point of the CRM is to help you close new leads, then the Bike Shed Effect is actually making the CRM worse than useless.

The Straight and Narrow Path

CRMs, like all software, are just tools to help us solve real-world problems—not create additional technology headaches for ill-defined ends like data accuracy. Before setting up your CRM, you should think carefully about what well-defined, real-world organizational problems it’s going to help you solve.

In my experience, it’s best to think about Customer Relationship Management not as a piece of software but as a system—some of which can be automated through tools like CRMs, some of which should be managed in tools specifically designed for a job like MailChimp or Stripe, and some of which relies on the non-software parts of your organization, i.e., the people. After all, a hammer can help you drive a nail, but it doesn’t tell you what to build. Similarly, someday self-driving cars may help you get from A to B, but they won’t tell you where to go. CRMs are no different.

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