CRM: Strive for Simplicity

Designing around a familiar interface is key

Scoff if you will, but John Sprouse, CIO for 3-year-old Prime Advantage Corp., in Chicago, claims his companys 30-person sales team is happily and productively using the CRM application he chose last July.

Why is that so remarkable? A shockingly high percentage of customer relationship management deployments—50 percent by some estimates—fail, often because salespeople and other relatively inexperienced IT users struggle to use overly complex applications, experts say.

Sprouse got around that problem by opting for simplicity.

First, he chose a CRM product with a contact management module based on a common e-mail interface that was already well-known to most of his sales force users—Microsoft Corp.s Outlook. Sprouse also elected to keep CRM application features to a minimum to avoid overwhelming new users.

The result: Not only was Sprouses team able to deploy the new CRM application and complete user training in less than a month, Prime Advantages salespeople have continued to use the application to keep customer information at their fingertips and increase customer satisfaction.

"It works just like Outlook, only you have options to do more things," said Sprouse, who deployed the Outlook-based CRM application from Worldtrak Corp., in Bloomington, Minn. "If your employees already know how to use Outlook, then they are up and running using Worldtrak in no time."

Experts warn that Sprouses approach wont work for every enterprise. Large companies with loads of customers and mountains of customer data, for example, probably wouldnt be happy with the performance limitations imposed by Outlook and its underlying Microsoft Exchange server. But, say experts, all enterprises should learn from Sprouses example and plan for simplicity and ease of use. That can go a long way toward getting salespeople to use CRM products.

"Salespeople have felt in the past that their needs and how they best work are not taken into consideration by executives when choosing CRM applications," said Joe Outlaw, an analyst with Gartner Group Inc., in Stamford, Conn.

Prime Advantages road to CRM started last spring when, as they prepared a significant sales force expansion, the companys two sales managers decided they needed a better way to track customer leads and information.

Prior to that, salespeople at the online business-to-business aggregator for industrial products and services were using Microsofts Excel spreadsheet application to track customer and supplier data.

That, however, made it difficult for salespeople to quickly access and share leads and other customer information. The sales managers wanted a CRM system that can be fed information on customer leads and used to automatically assign those leads to the right salespeople.

And, with hundreds of suppliers and customers to track, they wanted a system that allows salespeople to fetch the status of a customer or supplier lead at a moments notice, without having to sort through pages of data as they had to with an ordinary spreadsheet program.

The sales managers also wanted to be able to share that information with the customer support department on demand.

Sprouses focus on simplicity and familiarity led him at first to consider a Web browser-based CRM deployment. But that proved impractical, he said. Because his salespeople would be traveling a lot and would not always have a connection to the Internet or the company network, it was important for them to be able to work offline. They would then need to sync any data with the companys database once they were able to connect to keep it current, Sprouse said.

Sprouse decided that the Worldtrak CRM application, which uses the syncing capabilities in Exchange, would meet his companys functional needs, be easy enough for salespeople to use and be affordable.

Prime Advantage already had Microsofts Exchange Server installed. That meant Sprouse could deploy the Worldtrak CRM system on top of existing infrastructure, making it relatively inexpensive. Currently, Sprouse has a little more than 30 salespeople using the system from Worldtrak, which charges $1,500 to $2,000 per licensed user.

Of course, experts say, the Worldtrak application wouldnt work for all enterprises. Companies that standardized on a different e-mail system—Lotus Development Corp.s Notes, for example—might not get the ease-of-use benefits that Prime Advantage got from Worldtrak. Also, Worldtraks Exchange-Outlook foundation might not scale well enough to support hundreds of users.

"Outlook is OK for what it does," said Gartners Outlaw. But, he said, "Its not a robust-enough application to regularly sync large amounts of data. If youre using Outlook, youre probably working with a small amount of users."

Outlooks own issues aside, CRM experts such as Barton Goldenberg, president of Information Systems Marketing Inc., in Bethesda, Md., say Prime Advantage and Worldtrak are on the right track focusing on ease of use and simplicity in CRM.

And, for Prime Advantage, the results bear that out. Not only are the companys salespeople still using the application, said Sprouse, theyve already improved customer service by keeping better tabs on issues such as which suppliers customers prefer to use. And thats nothing to scoff at.