A Back-to-Basics Guide to CRM Adoption

We've all had that moment when we've been on the verge of throwing a tech-related temper tantrum. And in the sales world, customer relationship management (CRM) systems are often the reason behind our frustration.

Companies are making big investments in CRM—$5 billion a year, according to Gartner—while low adoption rates continue to plague the industry. In fact, in a 2014 survey, CSO Insights found that less than 37 percent of sales reps actually use their company's CRM system. Many vice presidents of sales, who need visibility into activity and progress, lament that they can't get their top producers on board, while the most active CRM users often don't make their sales quotas.

There is no magical cure for this CRM conundrum. The first tip you'll most likely hear from whoever sold you the CRM system is to tie data entry to comp plans. But let's be honest: With this approach, you'll end up with mounds of useless "Had mtg" types of notes, keyed in at the very last minute to meet requirements.

The path to success actually starts with a lesson you learned as a kid—be considerate. Later in life, this virtue takes many forms—empathy, understanding others' viewpoints, flexibility in various scenarios. When it comes to CRM, it is critical that we put ourselves in our team's shoes. It's not always easy; other people's shoes are usually ill-fitting and awkward. But when we realize that CRM systems have been optimized for the company and not for the end users, we can change our approach to create a mutually beneficial process and outcome.

Sales managers, let's break the stalemate. Walk in your salespeople's shoes, and put those childhood lessons into action. Here are a few ways to do that:

Let them march to the beat of their own drum. No matter how easy or accessible your CRM system is, sales reps will continue to keep private journals of their deals and customers—usually in their notebooks, documents, or spreadsheets. Their primary motivation isn't to hide deals or sandbag forecasts, but rather to address the basic human need for personal space and the ability to work in a way that is more fluid and physically separated from a company-wide system of record. Give reps the ability to selectively sync updates from their personal systems to the company's CRM system. Although the CRM industry has a long way to go before bridging personal and corporate systems, there are tools that make it easier for your users to sync their notes into a CRM system. In return, they will more enthusiastically embrace CRM while management gets richer data. It's a win-win.

It's what's on the inside that counts. Point-and-click customization of CRM is a blessing and a curse. As simple as it is to tailor the software to a company's unique sales process, it's equally easy to pollute the database with fields and expect sales reps to capture everything from a customer's favorite sports team to his dog's name. Throw in fields that the marketing and customer service organizations want to track and pretty soon you'll inundate your sales reps with a data entry nightmare they're sure to avoid. Pick a few high-impact fields to track, get rid of everything else, and let your salespeople get back to what's most important—selling.

Set a good example The promise of CRM is to give everyone in the company a single view of the customer and sales pipeline. This includes executives and sales managers. Too often, though, execs will ping the rep via email or phone "to get the latest status on a deal" without even looking at the CRM system. Sales managers will ask sales reps to fill out an Excel forecast for their weekly calls instead of using CRM reports. If execs and sales managers don't put their faith in the CRM system, how can you reasonably expect sales reps to believe in it?

Sharing is caring. Back in the day, sales reps used personal Rolodexes or Act! to track their relationships. Companies lost a lot of customer data when a sales rep left. Siebel invented the CRM category and flipped that situation on its head—which left sales reps scrambling to remember contact info for the people they had built relationships with in the past (LinkedIn has helped somewhat). While CRM data is proprietary to the company and confidentiality needs to be protected, allow sales reps to retain the business card level info for the customers they touched. Review your existing policy, and make changes that allow for this. This reality check will build mutual trust and improve CRM adoption. In the end, it's a two-way street—if a new sales rep you hired had good relationships from his past, you'd want to leverage them too.

Always look both ways. If you want sales reps to use CRM at any point during their day, it has to be accessible whenever and wherever they need it. A mobile app is only part of the answer, because most apps require a constant 3G/4G connection. Despite today's seemingly always-connected world, ubiquitous connectivity doesn't exist. Too often, salespeople run into bad connections on the interstate or in an elevator. Customer information is the difference between success and failure, and therefore it has to be available 24/7. When you're evaluating mobile CRM solutions, make offline operation a key criterion (try the app in "Airplane" mode) to ensure sales reps can truly work anytime, anywhere.

The best approach for boosting CRM adoption is to remember what your mom taught you—think of others. Walk in your sales reps' shoes to understand which tools and processes are needed and which are unnecessary distractions. Think like a rep and your reps will be more likely to think like you—and give you the CRM data you need.

Chuck Ganapathi is founder and CEO of Tactile, which creates tools to empower individuals and enrich companies.

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