two coworkers on headsets and computers
Implementing a CRM system might seem like the answer to all of your problems, but expert Gene Marks cautions to do so wisely. — Getty Images/fizkes

If you could create your own fantasy Board of Directors, who would be on it? CO— connects you with thought leaders from across the business spectrum and asks them to help solve your biggest business challenges. In this edition, a CO— reader asks how to avoid making a mistake when choosing a CRM system.

Gene Marks, founder of The Marks Group, answers…

Thinking of getting a customer relationship management (CRM) software? Just wait.

Yes, CRM applications can provide a huge value, regardless of your company’s size. We've implemented hundreds of CRM systems in the 20+ years our firm has been in business and we've been part of some very successful projects. Unfortunately, we've also been part of our share of failures too. These failures are 100% my fault. Why? Because I didn't do a good job advising my prospective client.

So now I'm going to advise you...on how to buy the WRONG CRM application for your business.

For example, you get caught up in all the features. The fact is that today's CRM market is made up of hundreds of applications and many of them are very mature. Because they're mostly cloud-based, these vendors watch each other like hawks; so, when one adds a feature, you can bet their competitors will roll out similar functionality within days. You can buy any one of a number of the mainstream products (Salesforce, Microsoft Dynamics, Sugar, Zoho, Nimble and others) and you'll be fine! In fact, the features will probably be overkill. Don't focus so much on the features. Focus on the look and feel. Focus on the company behind it. And focus on some of the other things I'll mention below.

Or, you expect miracles. No, you don't sign up, sweep your fingers over your keyboard like Chopin and expect your CRM application to magically produce more sales and profits. CRMs take hard work — work that many of your people might currently not be doing. Are they logging in notes from every call? Scheduling follow-ups for every customer and prospect? Updating demographic information and notes? In the end, all of these CRM systems are just glorified databases, and if your process for getting data in and out of your chosen application is inferior, then you're going to have an inferior CRM system. Don't buy one until you figure this out and get everyone to buy in.

In the end, all of these CRM systems are just glorified databases, and if your process for getting data in and out of your chosen application is inferior, then you're going to have an inferior CRM system.

Maybe you forget to work with a partner. All good CRM systems have good partners. My firm is a certified partner for a few CRM applications, which means we're trained to provide the best advice for getting the most value out of the products we sell. I've also learned to give objective advice to prospective customers and regularly recommend CRM applications we don't sell because they're a better fit. Face it - you're not an expert with CRM. You're an expert with your business. Ask the CRM vendor, search LinkedIn or get a recommendation for a good, trusted, certified CRM partner for the products you're researching and have them show you the good, bad and ugly, assuming they're honest.

Or you get a vendor reference...from the vendor! So, let me ask you: When a prospective customer wants a reference, do you give them the names of your three worst customers? Of course not. So why would a software vendor do the same? Here's a trick I've learned: Suppose you really like a CRM application and it's called "ABCRM." Great. Now go to a job search website like Monster or Indeed. Search for jobs where the employers are looking for people who have experience with ABCRM. That tells you that ABCRM is being used at that company. Call them up. Ask to speak to the sales or office manager, and then find out what they think of the application. People like to talk. You'll get objective feedback from a real life customer that hasn't been spoon-fed to you from a software salesperson looking to meet a quarterly quota.

 Gene Marks
Gene Marks, founder of The Marks Group

Finally, you wimp out on demos. Getting a demo is important before you buy a CRM system. The salesperson does this all day. He or she knows which minefields to avoid and what questions to deflect. I know this because I do it. But my smartest prospects aren't wimps. They beat me up. They have me do multiple demos to various groups in their company. They send me their real-life data and ask me to do real-life things that match their real-life processes so they can see how the system functions. They demand a free license so they can practice on their own, and then they bury me with questions. And you know what? I love it. These are smart buyers, and I know that if they pull the trigger on one of the products I sell, they've done their due diligence and won't be a problem down the road.

So go ahead, get a CRM system. If it's implemented the right way, you'll see how critical follow-ups never fall through the cracks, key information is shared by everyone in your group and everyone in your community — prospects, customers, partners, vendors — are better served. You'll also be building a valuable asset — a database — that will be of interest to future buyers, investors or partners. But, please, don't do any of the above things. Because if you do, you won't be able to take advantage of these benefits.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

CO—is committed to helping you start, run and grow your small business. Learn more about the benefits of small business membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, here.