Purchasing a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) System? Here’s some bad news:  you’ll probably fail. It may very well be a disappointment. You could be wasting your money. At best, you may only have a glorified rolodex. My company services over 500 small- and medium-sized clients that use the CRM applications we support (GoldMine and Microsoft CRM). We’ve had lot of successes but also a good share of disasters too. I got sick of the bad projects and one day sat down to try and figure out why our great projects were so great. Here’s what I found.

1. One individual stepped up to the plate.

Every project needs an internal champion. The projects that succeeded had one. I’m talking about a really good administrative person. Someone who has a brain and isn’t afraid to use it. Or a baseball bat too if necessary. The champion is not afraid to make mistakes. Or yell and scream if necessary. The champion is authorized by management to get the job done…and evaluated on its success. The champion should know everything about the system. He/she should get all the advanced training they need. The champion is responsible for the accuracy of the CRM database. The outside consultants are used to back up the champion. If you don’t have someone like this in place then you will fail, fail, fail!

2. There were black and white deliverables.

Don’t try to “get more sales” or “service our customers better.” That’s a joke. You buy a piece of equipment to cut metal. You purchase a truck to deliver your product. What’s the specific thing that your CRM system should be doing? How about two to three needed reports that you’re not getting? How about replacing two databases with one combined system? Come up with an exact deliverable and have your CRM consultant tell you just how much it will cost to deliver it. Justify this investment by how much more sales or fewer expenses will result. Pay them when you see it and it’s working. My best clients go into their implementations with a clear, measurable goal in mind.

3. We’re not “girly-men.”

Schwarzenegger doesn’t like them, and neither do I. This is not a win-win situation. You’re not trying to make people happy. You’re putting in a system to help you generate more sales from existing and new customers. Your competitors are doing it. Don’t listen to those whining salespeople who don’t want to use this system – CRM applications are standard stuff nowadays. The strongest managers I know look at CRM as just a tool to use to get them the information they need so they can manage their sales and service groups effectively. People don’t like change. Everyone’s got their own system. Well, it’s not about them, is it? It’s about the company. If you’re a girly-man with your direct reports, then avoid putting in a CRM system. Take your people to the opera instead.

4. We took small steps at a reasonable pace.

No one turned the place upside down. Our successful clients took the attitude that their CRM implementation would take place over a long period of time and broke the project down into chunks. Many figured out early that a test group of users (especially users with the right attitude) was the right place to start. This way they could get their feet wet and work out the kinks. And assuming success, the test group of users could help spread the gospel – train other employees and help with issues. Each phase would be about 30 days or so. And of course these phases were part of an overall plan. By doing it this way, management could make sure things were going according to plan and give themselves the opportunity to cut their losses if things weren’t really happening they way they hoped.

5. We weren’t afraid to fail.

Look, some really great and successful companies just don’t embrace CRM. Their culture isn’t right for it. They’ve succeeded without it. Some of our clients’ CRM failures really weren’t failures at all. Management knew that CRM was a new concept for their company and were willing to take a chance (remember about taking those small steps) on it. CRM systems fail all the time and for many reasons beyond management’s control. Don’t be afraid to walk away from something that’s just not a good fit. If it was an affordable learning exercise, then it really wasn’t a failure at all.

Gene Marks is the owner of The Marks Group PC, a ten-person CRM consulting firm based outside of Philadelphia, PA. Gene has written four books and speaks frequently on small business topics. His “Penny Pincher’s Almanac” column appears nationwide in American City Business Journals.