The Big App

The minute she walked into my office, I knew she was trouble. Trouble, with a capital T, and that rhymes with C, and that stands for CRM.

Before I even had a chance to ask her to sit, she helped herself to a chair. No telling what else she was capable of. “Good morning, Mr. Morris,” she said. “Cut the small talk,” I replied. I was in no mood for chatter. It was a Monday, and I was up before noon. I had a sudden urge to reach for the bottle in my bottom drawer, but decided it would be impolite to chug Kaopectate in front of the lady. “Who are you and what do you want?” I growled.

“Name’s Rama Ramaswami.”

“Okay, Ms. Swami, what can I do for you?”

“No, no, it’s Ramaswami. Rama Ramaswami. And I’m hoping you’ll take my case.” She didn’t mince words. I liked that in a woman, even one who kept repeating her name. I looked her over. She had great gams, and her legs weren’t bad either. Still, there was something about that name — where had I heard it before? Then it hit me.

“You’re the editorial director of O+F, right?”

“Very good, Mr. Morris. Now, perhaps you’d like to tell me why I’m here?” What kind of game was she playing? I didn’t think it was Scrabble. “Why don’t you tell me?” I countered, trying to call her bluff. We went back and forth like that for about 15 minutes. She was tougher than I thought.

Finally, the whole ugly story came out. “I want you to dig up the truth on crim,” she said. “Crim?” I was confused. “Listen, I’m no criminologist.” She didn’t think that was funny — which was fine with me, because neither did I. “No, you fool — CRM! Customer Relationship Management! I want you to find some examples of CRM implementation failures.” My jaw dropped. As I bent to pick it up, I felt my world come crashing down. “Why me?” I demanded, “and how much does it pay?”


A few years back, I was intimately involved with CRM. But I thought that was all behind me. The minute Ms. Rama Rama (or whatever she was calling herself) walked through my door, that all changed. I could feel myself being pulled back into CRM’s clutches. I broke out in a cold sweat, and my hands started to shake — which made it even more difficult to type out the e-mails I would need to get started doing O+F’s dirty work.

Somehow, I got the word out on the street: I needed failure stories, and I needed them fast. But the street wasn’t talking; I’d run up against the CRM code of silence. Nobody wanted to admit to being involved with a project that was deep-sixed. It looked like I was at a dead end. I’d hit a brick wall. This trail was as cold as an iceberg in the middle of the North Atlantic with a big luxury liner bearing down on it and an orchestra playing “Nearer My God to Thee.” I was at my wits’ end, and I hadn’t had too many to begin with. Everything started to get dark, and soon I lost consciousness. When I came to, it was the next morning. I couldn’t account for all those hours I’d lost, but I knew there was no getting them back. So I shut off my alarm and got out of bed. There was more than one way to skin a cat. But I knew my cats would probably skin me first, so I figured I needed a different metaphor.


Maybe somebody had heard something. It was time to turn to some of my snitches. Wise guys. Analysts. Consultants. Outsourcers. They were always willing to talk. A little too willing, sometimes.

An intermediary got in touch with me; it seemed Ricky Arriola, president of Miami-based direct-marketing services outsourcer Inktel Direct, wanted to talk. Arriola was honest with me. “I’m not a techie,” he confided. “I’m a lawyer and marketing guy by training, but CRM fascinates me.” Hey, it takes all kinds, you know? Anyway, he hadn’t personally been involved in any CRM failures, but he said a “close friend” owned a financial services firm at the height of the Web boom, that hired a Big Five consultancy to do a fully integrated CRM implementation. “It was going to have all the bells and whistles — Web site info generation, trades processing and clearing, customers able to look up all kinds of data — to the tune of $30 million. And it was a colossal failure.”

Why? Arriola thinks it was because the company didn’t have a fully developed business model. “It was a relatively young company trying to get traction and differentiate itself in the marketplace.” Because of the Internet craze, speed to market was critical; everybody was under a lot of pressure to succeed. “This was a company with some significant financial players, like banks, behind it, so there was no lack of qualified people. But there were too many cooks in the kitchen. If they’d just been doing a slimmed down project, it might have succeeded.” But they got greedy. A fatal mistake.


I was about to check out Arriola’s story when I got word that Ben Holtz, president and CEO of Green Beacon Solutions, was anxious to spill his guts. Green Beacon is a CRM consultancy based in Beantown; it focuses on implementations for small and mid-size companies. Holtz had managed to dodge a lot of bullets, remaining vendor-neutral through more than 400 CRM implementations. “We’ve worked with solutions from virtually all of the major CRM vendors,” he said, sounding no worse for wear.

Holtz recalled one of their larger clients, a publishing company in New York that spent literally millions on its first CRM implementation, aimed at Sales. “But sales people are a difficult breed, and many decisions were made without user involvement — so the salespeople wouldn’t use the system. They fired the entire staff and hired a new product manager.” Ouch.

Holtz also spun a tale about a division of a European computer hardware manufacturer that sells directly to companies with up to 5,000 employees with computers. “We went through a CRM implementation process with rank and file and senior executives. At the end everybody seemed happy.”


“Not so fast,” said Holtz. “It failed anyway because the executives all left. New execs came in who didn’t accept CRM as a strategy, and lost interest. They arrived right at the time the system needed a tune-up — which is standard after three to four months of use — so all the new management types heard were complaints about the system. They said they wouldn’t use it.” Yeah, turnover in management is tough. Holtz says you see a lot of failure when a new person comes in with a completely different process for sales, marketing, or customer service. “CRM is new enough that it’s not completely accepted,” Holtz points out. “When ERP came in, people had to be convinced that their manual accounting systems could be improved. CRM is still at the stage where you need to twist everyone’s arm.” Holtz told me that CRM isn’t about one person, it’s about the culture in an organization being focused on the customer: making the customer happier, keeping the customer longer. He didn’t come right out and say it, but I wondered whether anybody who wasn’t focused on the customer was gonna get whacked.


I wanted to talk to one of the boys out of New York. I knew one of the Big Five consultant families, Accenture, had been through its share of hard knocks. I was finally able to track down a partner in Accenture’s CRM Action Group, based in Toronto, going by the name of “Jerry Garcia.” (Although I suspected he was part of the Consultant Protection Program, I was assured this was really his name. Go figure!)

Garcia raised the issue of managing expectations. “The industry, including consultants and others that would profit, always talks about the end-state benefits — what you’d get if you could do everything perfectly. This causes certain expectations. And when execs go to the CEO or board to get buy-in, they present these benefits, but you can’t get there in a single step.” CRM, argues Garcia, has to be implemented in a phased approach, yet it never seems to be clear to management how the phases relate to the end-stage benefits. He claims Accenture lays out some 120 capabilities in detail, “so a client can see exactly where he is and where he needs to be to manage his customers.” I like their style; Garcia seemed to be saying that they explain the plan v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, so that even senior management can understand. “Besides,” said Garcia, “Another reason plans are often overly optimistic is that the longevity for a CIO is usually 18 months or less. A CRM project can take two years or more to get to the end state, so clients are impatient to get it done.” Right — before they go to The Big Sleep.


I had one last stop: Bill Chambers of Doculabs, a research firm in Chicago. And Chambers wasn’t buying the usual excuses. “CRM implementations are failing now for very different reasons than they did even a year ago,” he assured me. Yeah, he’d heard it all: Lack of overall commitment across groups; no C-level exec buy-in; no commitment from managers; no high level strategy to target the customer; not enough up-front analysis… yada yada yada.

“The whole landscape has significantly changed,” Chambers maintained. The primary reasons CRM implementations now fail are the need for business process management to tie different areas together, and the need for performance indicators and analytic-monitoring-tracking indicators. “Nobody’s looking at CRM suites anymore,” claimed Chambers. In part, this is due to the economy. But past efforts to build out a “grand CRM-all-touchpoints-to-the-enterprise” implementation strategy across sales, marketing, and customer service, requiring integration with the rest of an organization (even if starting with only one area), had, said Chambers, “failed miserably.” This happened for two reasons:

  • Underestimation of business process management issues. “The level of system integration and data implementation required was enormous,” he said; businesses didn’t have the level of resources needed.

  • The whole idea of tying it to return on investment. “If you’re going to tie it to ROI,” contended Chambers, “there needs to be more emphasis on key business indicators, and the measurement and monitoring needed to develop those indicators to support that level of business or enterprise.”

Chambers used a lot of $3 words, but I got the gist of it. Because the economy stinks and the “grand CRM vision” has failed, companies now look at implementing only a single component of a CRM suite, or making better use of some portion of a suite that’s already in place. Chambers cited two illustrations: “A large utility we’re working with is focusing only on self-service functionality (e-billing, account management, self-serve on Web site, knowledge base for call center). In the past, they tried implementing Siebel and PeopleSoft as a comprehensive package, didn’t see the payoff needed, and got disgusted with that. Now they’re looking at a limited-scope single component; going to Kana or eGain to try to get a self-service solution, to address a key business pain point.” Example two: “There’s a catalog part fulfillment company that has a CRM solution only in their customer service center to support call handling. They discussed potentially rolling it out, bringing in other parts, and integrating customer data for sales and marketing. This would have required significant analysis and developing a customer data model; they decided instead to focus on expanding customer service portal capabilities they already have, allowing customers to do some additional things like checking on order status, etc. They’ve really put off expanding features to other departments.”

Like, what he said.


I knew there was more to the story, but my expense account was running low, and so was the number of words I was allowed. I could’ve written a book. Maybe I will. Or maybe I’ll just put my feet up on the desk, crack open a fresh bottle of Imodium, and wait to see who the next dame is that walks through my door.

Jeff Morris is a freelance writer whose attempts to take a Big Sleep are often thwarted by apnea.


CRM has generated value for many companies but isn’t anywhere close to reaching its full potential, according to a survey of 150 top executives of Fortune 1000 companies conducted by Accenture and Wirthlin Worldwide. Here are some key findings:

  • When asked to rank the most prevalent causes of CRM failure, respondents cited flawed execution plans (74%), lack of long-term CRM vision (60%), and inadequate support from upper management (55%) as the top three causes.

  • More than half of respondents (56%) said their business would grow as much as 20% if they could gain access to comprehensive data about their customers. This supports Accenture’s view that the long-term outlook for CRM is healthy.

  • Nearly one-third (29%) of executives felt that to “a slight extent” their company was using all customer data to dramatically drive sales. Only 21% believed they were doing so to “a great extent.”

  • When asked if technology was helping their companies gain better insight into customers, 54% said “to some extent”; only 33% said “to a great extent.”

Cram for CRM

Understand relationships

CRM is really about relationships, not technology.

Involve top executives

Their support is critical to set strategic direction for CRM.

Know your business

Before investing in CRM, define your business processes, understand departmental interactions, and identify bottlenecks.

Know your users

Just as critical as defining business processes is knowing what features are important to your CRM users.

Go with supportability

Choose a product you can support and ensure that internal IT staff can support the product’s technology.

Look for small successes

Smaller deployments enable employees and customers to adjust to new processes and tools, and can reduce overall project risk and complexity.

Perform ongoing evaluations

Set up a CRM steering committee of key users to evaluate the project on a regular basis.

Richard Smith, VP of Delivery, Green Beacon Solutions

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