Simple Is As Simple Does

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Don Martin is president of small, sophisticated Lion Precision, based in the Twin Cities. Lion manufactures sensors for detecting distance--which ensure the shampoo label is correctly aligned on the bottle, for instance. It's a competitive industry; customers have options. Sales are "sporadic," Martin says, since a customer only needs a sensor every couple of years or so. "We wanted CRM to help customers remember us during that time. We're smaller, so we rely on personal relationships." And the one thing Martin knew he wanted in a CRM solution was "simplicity."

Simple CRM? To many, that seems like an oxymoron. "You can't mention simplicity when you mention CRM. It's not reality," says Sheryl Kingstone, program manager for CRM strategies of Boston-based Yankee Group. "If you have a point solution solving a specific pain point, you can simplify it, but you can't 'simplify' CRM." While many efforts to simplify CRM only zero in on specific pain points and not CRM as a whole, the concept is similar to your whole body feeling better once a toothache's gone.

"The CRM that works simply and most effectively is driven from the top of the operation," says Chris Selland, vice president of marketing at Boston-based eSupportNow. "It might be more complex technology, but it's ultimately simpler for everyone to use."

It's kind of like Apple's Mac--it's simple, but there's complex technology under that hood. "When companies try to simplify the technology, they can simplify too much and end up with more business complexity," Selland says. "It usually takes complex technology to support simple business functionality."

Most often "simplicity" refers only to what a company doesn't want--long and pricey implementations, perpetually confused users and always-next-quarter ROI. Recently Oracle declared war on CRM software complexity--their version of simplicity being "use it straight out of the box and nobody gets hurt."

Lion Precision's CRM needed to be simple because "we don't have a huge staff to push data around," Martin says. "We can't have multiple databases for our customers. We have manufacturing software and contact software, and we wanted to blend those. The goal is one customer, one record." Lion compared packages with such functionalities as classifying interactions, inputting leads, sending out literature and e-mails and going from quote to order process. After examining Frontstep, Oncontact Software, SalesLogix and Visual Technology Group (VTG), they chose VTG since "it integrates nicely with our manufacturing package." In other words, it'd be simpler. They invested between $10,000 and $20,000.

But isn't "simplicity" just vendor speak for wallet-Hoovering? Actually, the reason for CRM simplicity is any one or a combination of the following:

• Companies steering clear of overbuying technology.

• Companies emphasizing proper training and motivating people to use the stuff.

• Vendors toning down the pitch, unbolting some bells and whistles and lowering prices.

• Companies focusing on the business process before writing checks to vendors, thereby purchasing more focused

What's the common thread in those four points? You rarely saw such scrutiny of technology purchases before late March or early April 2000. Back when everybody was chartering jets to fly the entire company staff to Banff for the spring picnic, CRM sales could be made on a snazzy brochure and a 30-minute call. "It was a [backward] way to do it," Selland says, "to start with the technology and figure out what problems you could solve. And frankly, vendors didn't ask too many questions from people throwing purchase orders at them."

The Cupboard's Bare

Times are hard. Nowadays executives are being held accountable for the business case for software purchases or are simply told to use what they bought way back when. Governance boards want business returns this year on software purchases. "Companies are demanding short-term implementation cycles with definite ROI due to the economic uncertainty," Yankee Group's Kingstone says. "That's leading to a lot of the emphasis on simplicity."

The question really isn't "Why should I do CRM?" but rather, "Why should I do it now when I've only got so much to spend this year?" Companies are more inclined to understand the business process and buy only what they need to solve a specific problem, which tends to make life simpler for those using the stuff.

ROI is playing a bigger part in CRM purchases, says Stephen Diorio, president of stamford, Conn.-based IMT strategies and author of Beyond "e": Twelve Ways Technology is Transforming Sales and Marketing. "CRM's still a faith leap. If you can tangibly connect a database to ROI, I'll give you a million dollars. ROI math is more complicated in CRM. It's like that play, Six Degrees of Separation. There are about six layers of separation between what you do with CRM and when it shows up on the bottom line." "We've seen a lot more due diligence in the past six months," says Steve Nesenblatt, corporate account manager for Bozeman, Mont.-based RightNow Technologies. "And the issues they're interested in are cost savings, ease of use and improved service."

Our People Are Our Most Important Asset

"Think about who really uses CRM. The key is in relationships," says Bill Brendler, of Wimberley, Texas-based Brendler Associates, a change management company. "There's not a single technology in the world that's ever established a relationship with a customer. We need to simplify, but management complicates the [heck] out of it."

Brendler says, "It's a simple process called change, getting users to accept that they can use the stuff innovatively and benefit. I don't know where management gets the ram-it-down-their-throats approach from."

It's a crying shame that companies are shoveling sackfuls of CRM money into the ocean because they don't know how to manage the people who need to make it all work. The companies who've done it well--the new Mercedes Benz, USAA, Cisco, Marshall Industries, Sun, Dell--know companies have to establish a good relationship with people who then establish good relationships with clients.

"You need to get down to the people who are going to talk to the customer. That is where simplification needs to happen. You don't have to simplify the technology. You have to simplify the process," Brendler says. "Simplicity's not happening because management's not getting users' acceptance, [and they are not] putting proper processes that impact the customers in place. How does top management know what to do for customers if they haven't talked to a customer in five months? They want to run the process of change but know [little] about it. I can't give you any case studies to follow up on because nobody's doing it right."

"The people who wrote this [software] have no idea how CRM works," Martin says. "The program doesn't let me link an e-mail to a contact. Seventy percent of business is done by e-mail these days--I went to a vendor meeting where [VTG] was arguing against the idea that anyone would even want to do that."

But Seriously, Folks

"Some products are so complex I can't understand them," says Dick Lee, principal of Minneapolis-based High-Yield Marketing. "People are saying let's focus on the critical tasks and leave the silly stuff out of it."

"There are applications that will do 80 percent of needed functionality for 20 percent of cost for something contained, like how to do self-service on the Web," Selland says. "But when your people are interacting with customers, you get complicated."

RightNow Technologies has a gravity-defying sales line thanks to businesses fed up with paying for CRM complexity they never use, let alone profit from. CEO Greg Gianforte, a New Jersey transplant who recruits staff by sending postcards of beautiful Montana to prospects, was grinning and drywashing his hands when the economy turned sour. "When money's free-flowing, it's not as important how much an application costs. In harder times, our time has come," he says.

RightNow offers a specific solution for the e-service problem of moving large amounts of easily accessible information online to large groups of non-technical users efficiently and cheaply. It's not a CRM package. It's a point solution to layer on top of whatever the CRM is. If a company has done its homework and knows it needs an e-service tool as part of an overall CRM solution, whether it be from RightNow, E.piphany, Worldtrak or whomever, just such a point solution can be a simple, cheap, quick and easy answer to the problem.

"Really, what 95 percent of all companies who are trying to get CRM simplicity are after is business performance improvement," Kingstone says. "And sure, there are ways to lower complexity and improve simplicity. What those companies such as RightNow are offering helps. It's an improvement, but it's not the end of the road."

"ROI?" Lion Precision's Martin says. "We haven't even used this yet. It's not even functional. We have hopes [VTG's] next release will do what we want it to do, and we've put them on notice that we're ready to can the whole thing."

Yet simplicity as a marketing pitch is a double-edged sword. "If I'm a customer and a vendor comes in and says to me he's got a nice, simple CRM solution, what that says to me is you can only solve part of my problem," eSupportNow's Selland says. "Simple answers to complex questions aren't always the best answers. For any organization with existing systems, CRM's going to be complicated. That's the fact."

"I don't see companies touting their products as simple, but as easy to deploy," says Chris Martins, research director of customer service for Boston-based Aberdeen. "'Simple' implies devoid of features." RightNow's Nesenblatt says customers are skeptical something exists that is simple and will solve their problems. Low price is a hurdle for them, as is the fact they aren't going to get hundreds of suits swarming over the place. "They think their problems aren't going to be solved," Lee says.

It's the Process, stupid

"Last year companies were coming out of Y2K and were saying, 'Okay, now I have to get into e-business,'" says Joanie Rufo, research director for Boston-based AMR Research. "Software sales went literally through the roof. Lots of companies were overbuying, and there wasn't the emphasis on business process." Rufo says she's seen excellent technology fail where there was no business plan and mediocre technology produce ROI where a strong business plan guided the implementation.

According to Selland, the best CRM always has top management support. This support needs to be more than lip service, too. "True story," Brendler says. "A big bank in Atlanta called me for a 2,800-seat implementation. I was told the vice presidents are the supreme users, and they're going to give a speech to motivate the other users. Mentally, every single person in that room's going to flip those vice presidents the bird. The whole thing's going to get screwed up, and it'll be the fault of [those] running the stuff."

The one fatal mistake is to oversimplify the processes and shortchange the customer in the process. High-Yield's Lee says there's an increasing need to coordinate decisions across the enterprise, and if you run a simple out-of-the-box solution, "that ain't gonna happen. People are saying we're going to use it simply, but if it's not what the customer needs, it's a bad choice."

Lee likes what Optima Technologies ExSellence solution suite offers--broad functionality stripped of all the tchotchke: "Let's go for the 80 to 90 percent of work that really matters, because the last 10 percent costs more than the first 80."

The goal after all, is to make things "as simple as possible, but no simpler," Martin says. "When we asked [VTG] why this stuff can't do what they said it would do, they didn't even understand the question," Martin says. "They know CRM's an important thing, but they don't understand what CRM is. When you write your article tell people to have the vendor show you exactly what to do, and make sure they understand the questions you ask. Put that in big letters."

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