The Consulting Trap

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CRM consulting has a short but sordid history. "Short" because the opportunity crept up on the consulting biz. Few large consulting firms anticipated the revenue potential. And even small CRM consulting firms were rare as hen's teeth until recently. "Sordid" because the consulting profession as a whole hasn't done much to advance CRM's cause. Hey, when you look at CRM as a revenue opportunity, not a learning opportunity, clients suffer. And even knowledgeable CRM folks in the field are still groping to find the appropriate consultant-client relationship.

So what's the big problem here for clients? Why not just ignore these guys and implement CRM yourselves? Good questions--especially when you consider the amount spent on consultants is a poor predictor of success.

But on the flip side, implementing CRM is a messy deal with a lot of painful lessons to learn if you don't know where the buckets of you-know-what are strewn. Shouldn't someone who has taken this trek before help you keep your feet clean? You'd think they could--but they usually don't. So what's wrong?

Some of the problems are obvious. Like consulting firms dazzled by dollar signs to the point that they throw caution to the wind--and throw clients a messy load of systems-trained MBAs who are practicing CRM without a license. Like firms that think the fastest way to cash in is by cozying up with software companies and trading their objectivity for a piece of the software action. But there's much more to the "consultant trap" than predatory behavior by some--something more fundamental.

To get to the root of the problem, let's look at how CRM-implementing companies typically use consultants.

They don't use consultants at all.

Back in sales force automation (SFA) and independent call center days, this was the rule. No need to spend big bucks on someone to tell you how to "re-engineer" your existing work processes. Most companies could do it themselves. Software selection was a bit harder, but it was hardly rocket science. Training? Some companies needed support here, but trainers are hardly the big bucks guys of the consulting world. What really works here is typically high levels of managerial and staff participation in the whole implementation process. That's the only way to get compliance from CRM technology users. What doesn't work as well is having no one with CRM experience around when companies start melding sales, marketing and service functions together. That's when all the "buckets" start appearing. And as you'd expect, after the transition from SFA to full-blown CRM started, fewer companies wanted to risk sticking their feet in the smelly stuff.

They rely on software sellers for consulting service.

This is an invitation for abuse. Nonetheless, this practice started during SFA days and still continues today. While I know several software firms that won't let customers buy their software if it's not a fit, most software companies want to sell software first, then fit user needs around their system's capabilities. Consulting? Well, you could call it that. But the almost inevitable outcome of this approach is trying to implement CRM backwards--starting with technology and then trying to back into re-engineering work processes, then redefining roles and responsibilities, then developing customer-centric strategies. This is futile. Fortunately, more and more CRM implementers realize how futile.

They rely on outside consultants.

Hey, why not? When things get big and messy, that's what many companies do. Rely on consultants to do their thinking. "Hey, we did it with ERP, why not for CRM? And let's use the same consulting firm while we're at it." Why not? Because very few ERP implementations ever fulfilled their potential. The primary reason: Companies that let consultants do their thinking for them. "Hey, you tell us how to run our operations." "Deliver us someone else's best practices so we don't have to develop our own." "Bill us a gazillion dollars to make sure we're investing enough in staying up to speed." "Participation, who needs it? Only keeps people from their jobs." "You're already in bed with a software company? CRM will hatch sooner." That's the deal with CRM and outside consultants. And the outcome? Companies get "bolt-on" CRM programs that fall apart before the last consultant is out the door.

Now, breathe deeply, and you'll get a whiff of what the "consultant trap" is all about. In fact, you'll probably get a nose full. Like sticking your head in a patch of skunk cabbage. On one end of the "using consultants" spectrum we have "don't use consultants at all." Then we have this aberration called "relying on software sellers," which is nowhere. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, we have "rely on outside consultants." From one extreme to the other, with only an aberration in between.

What about taking a middle position? Why not limit the use of consultants to what companies can't do or learn on their own? Because they tell you, "We're good at what we do, not at CRM." "Our people aren't bright enough." "We can't take that much time away from our day jobs." "We want to rely on the experts."

Here's what I'd say back. "Not good at CRM? Maybe not good at all the details, but the fundamental job here is taking better care of customers. And if you don't excel at it, before long, you will be toast." "Your people aren't bright enough? MBAs at consulting firms are no different than MBAs anywhere. How many of them does it take to screw in a light bulb?" "Can't take that much time away from day-to-day business? Taking care of customers is your business. And if you're too busy to take better care of them, they'll be busy taking their business elsewhere." "Want to rely on the experts? If any outside consultant knows your customers better than you do, CRM won't save you."

Hey, I'm a CRM consultant (and an MBA, too). I like the big bucks. But maybe they shouldn't be there. Implementing CRM, real CRM, starts with changing company value to valuing customers more, and only management can accomplish that. It involves redesigning your organization, and if you need help, hire an organizational development specialist, not a CRM consultant. It involves re-engineering work processes, which your workers and managers have to lead. And it requires adding new technologies, and you can't afford to have your technologies chosen by consultants sleeping with software sellers.

Bottom line: There are roles for outside consultants in CRM--but they're limited. Consultants can provide objectivity when an outside perspective is needed. They can teach internal staff specific skills when needed. They can help the implementers stay focused and organized. Some can help you select the right software. And good ones can point out those buckets of you-know-what. But they can't do CRM for clients. They can't design it and deliver it in on a silver platter. They're no substitute for internal participation. And they absolutely can't implant values that have to grow from within.

While there's an important middle ground between companies going it alone or relying on consultants to manage their CRM implementations, experience has taught us that the optimal balance is heavy on the "do it yourself" and much lighter on "go outside." Learning from experience should limit consulting involvement to where it's needed--and increase CRM success rates.

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