Full disclosure: I was a card-carrying marketing guy for 20 years. So when I see the effects of reality distortion in my clients' purchase decisions, I know whereof I speak.

There's an old saying that people buy things because of how they think they will feel after the purchase. Sounds ridiculous, but it drives plenty of IT purchase cycles. Unfortunately, by the time the technology has actually been deployed, many of the assumptions and conclusions of the purchase cycle have been invalidated by changing business needs, by the product attributes or both. Buyer's remorse is real, but it can be avoided in CRM projects.

In Seth Godin's book, he wrote that marketers don't actually lie, they merely provide information that lets the customer believe whatever they want. If that's true, the source of the reality distortion field isn't the vendor, it's the buyer. So don't let yourself be deluded.

The first source of delusion is the fascination with features. Of course, that's what the vendor is going to emphasise and demo. In a sales cycle, amazing stories will be told, believed and extrapolated upon. Features make it easy to do comparative checklists that make the purchasing department happy. Problem is, CRM features are essentially useless if they users don't like them. Since a CRM system is worth only as much as the scope and validity of the data it contains, a CRM without active users is an empty shell that can have no business impact... irrespective of the purported features.

Instead of features, focus on usability. It's hard to quantify, so it's hard to compare. It's not even as exciting as a 5 year TCO analysis. But usability and speed of adoption will be the core determinant of CRM system's success over time.

Here are some things to evaluate closely:


  • Is the system as easy to access, with essentially equal performance, from all your office locations and road warrior destinations? Don't forget to include VPN and SSO issues here.
  • Is the user interface equally drivable from an XVGA laptop screen and an iPhone/BlackBerry, as well as a WXGA desktop screen? Do the pages require you to scroll endlessly, or do they have a good tabbing system?
  • How many pages does it take to enter a hot prospect or a new order? Count the number of mouse clicks and keyboard entries. (Note: this can be at least as much an issue of system configuration as it is of UI design.)
  • If you've got several different user types, how much can the system be customised for their needs? De-clutter is everything, particularly in sales.
  • If you've got a call centre, what percentage of standard operations can be done without requiring use of the mouse? Is it easy to integrate the CRM with your phone system, to have screen-pops and create context sensitive scripts? Is there a view that lets the user see most of the customer relationship history all on one screen?

The second source of delusion is the collection of beliefs about what users (and executives) will do. In the heat of a sales cycle, there are suppositions about how often something will be needed, or how much time someone will be willing to spend on a common task. This leads to overestimating the importance of some items, and underestimating the cost of (or resistance to) some activities or processes. In some cases, change management is simply assumed away. This leads to bad politics on top of confused priorities.

There is nothing with more leverage than vetting requirements, identifying the ones that can be left until later (especially if "later" slips into "never").

The solution here is to get some reality into the picture. Have an outsider do confidential interviews of users and executives to find out where the hot buttons and booby traps are. This is best done individually, in private (not in the group-think of focus groups), with questions designed to discover unrealistic assumptions. Here are some things to watch for:

  • Will a given report or dashboard actually change a business decision?
  • If the report were working but was based on 3% bad data, would it be useless? What about 8% bad data?
  • How much of her own time would an executive be willing to spend each week to get some feature or analysis? If she's not willing to do it, who else can?
  • How much housekeeping by users is really required for good system operation? Gauge the number of minutes per day that users will spend on administrivia. It better be about zero. (In one recent customer engagement, a CRM system was generating thousands of internal administrative tickets a month before the system was used by 20% of the employees. Yikes!)

Taking my wisdom from Tom Waits: When you choose a CRM system, you don't know about all its "small print" issues. You also don't know how the users will adopt the system, or where they'll perceive value.

So it really pays to do some introspection on the "soft issues" surrounding the CRM direction, because they'll be the basis for several hard realities a year or so later.