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Sell your sales staff on your new CRM apps

What good is your expensive new CRM system if your employees don't use it? In this month's CRM Steps to Success, one company shares its change management approach in hopes of helping you get your staff to buy in, too.

The best-designed CRM system in the world is useless if you can't get your employees to actually use it. And yet companies routinely underestimate the time and expense that this crucial step to CRM success requires. In fact, AMR Research senior analyst Louis Columbus says that if you broke out a pie chart for the average CRM effort, you'd see that at least 70% is spent on change management and 30% is spent on software.

Oblix Inc. was determined to avoid making change management mistakes when it implemented a new sales force automation system in September 2002. Founded in 1996, the Cupertino, Calif.-based enterprise identity management (EIM) vendor sells its products to companies like AT&T Wireless, General Motors and Xerox. Its sales force is highly successful and very experienced -- just the sort of employees who tend to be most resistant to change.

Oblix selected Enterprise Edition in August 2002 and went live on Sept. 23, after what director of sales operations Jonathan Berent terms a "true 45-day deployment." Employees had to be trained quickly.

Forty users are now on the system, including inside sales, direct sales, upper-level management and a few professional services staff members. The software provides forecasting, lead generation and account management, and Oblix is looking into extending it for customer support.

What did Oblix do right? The company followed a few key steps that change management experts recommend:

Change management checklist

Did you:

  • Get key executives to champion the project, including the CEO
  • Make the new software seem "urgent," demonstrating why it must be used
  • Use portals to make it easier for employees to access apps
  • Promote the new system via e-mail or the company intranet
  • Achieve critical mass by assigning a representative from each business unit to spearhead adoption

Form an early adopters' group

Berent identifies an early adopters' group as a critical success factor. While some companies find it helpful to include end users on the vendor selection committee, Oblix gathered about seven or eight users to test the new software in early September after it had been selected. Users gave feedback and made suggestions for tweaks. The key, Berent says, was that the group was made up of employees who would be most likely to resist change.

The idea came from the vice president of sales, who suggested getting some of the staunchest old-school salesmen for the early adopters' group -- the kind of people who were both very successful and firmly entrenched in their sales methodology. If all went well, these early adopters would become the new system's champions.

But first, Berent and the executives would have to make good on their promise to listen to the sales force's feedback.

Follow up on feedback

"We realized that responsiveness was key," says Berent. "If we were going to have this early adopters' program, it couldn't be token." He and his team responded to feedback within 24 hours, making changes to the system when possible or offering explanations of why the suggested changes wouldn't work.

One change suggested by the early adopters was to streamline the opportunity screen. The original screen contained more than 30 fields, but the committee protested that it was too cluttered and took too much time to navigate. In response, Berent removed some 20 fields. The result was a more efficient system and, more important, the respect of the sales team, who realized their requests weren't falling on deaf ears.

Offer a variety of training

The vendor,, provided training for both the sales force and for Berent, who acted as the system administrator. Berent went through 20 hours of free classes to learn how to make changes to the system. The sales force took a mandatory hour of free Web-based training before it received passwords for the system. The online training appealed especially to remote sales staff. Some reps then attended two Oblix-specific classes offered for a fee by

Change management consultant Bill Brendler, president of Wimberley, Texas-based Brendler Associates Inc., says the training process should be documented as part of the implementation strategy. Companies need to have a training plan in place early. Otherwise, he likens CRM training to teaching a child how to ride a bike by saying, "Now watch me ride the bicycle. Here's what you do. OK, now I'll see you later."

Establish cross-functional teams

Berent didn't bear the sole responsibility for rolling out the sales force automation project. He was part of a cross-functional team that Oblix formed during the CRM strategy process, which included representatives from marketing, inside sales and finance. Berent says employees from different departments were able to help push the process through and helped avoid "a lot of the political stuff" that often dooms CRM installations.

AMR's Columbus agrees that effective change management comes when key employees from different departments are working off the same playbook. He advocates forming these cross-functional teams early and having each member represent his department's user interests when designing the system. Columbus also recommends including key partners in the process if the CRM project has a partner relationship management component.

Be careful of the carrot-and-stick approach

Berent and his team called the project "Morpheus" during the early adopters and training phases, after the character in the movie The Matrix who helped others realize their potential. The hope was that the name would subtly remind users of the system's benefits.

Less subtle is the fact that, at Oblix, commissions aren't paid until deals are closed in the CRM system.

Overall, however, Berent says that demonstrating the value of inputting key data has worked better than any incentive or punitive measure.

Experts say beware of relying too strongly on punishments or rewards -- doing so could backfire. Brendler calls the carrot-and-stick approach "baloney" and says if a company is too heavy-handed its sales force could walk out the door. Columbus concurs, reminding organizations that, with any CRM project, your sales force is your first customer.


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