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Back to the Drawing Board

With CRM installations, practice makes perfect.

As W.C. fields once said, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, and try again. Then give up. There’s no use being a damn fool about it.”

Companies that have rolled out customer relationship management software know what Fields was talking about. It’s ironic, too, since the concept of CRM software is simple: treat customers well and you’ll always have customers.

There’s only one problem with that concept — in reality, getting a CRM system right the first time is anything but a sure thing.

The list of companies that have implemented CRM systems during the past few years is a long one. But many of those systems are now gathering dust — software converted to shelfware — as employees look for simpler ways to do their jobs.

To be fair, CRM rollouts tend to be ambitious projects. Unlike other business programs, customer-care software must often work across several channels, including Web sites, call centers, and retail outlets. Even makers of more-robust, mature applications like enterprise resource systems have trouble getting their apps to work in several environments.

Deploying a CRM app the first time often leaves a lasting impression on the deployers. Take the case of travel site ByeByeNow.com, which spent $8 million in 2000 on a well-intentioned CRM project that was meant to meet the needs of travel agents and consumers. Since ByeByeNow.com didn’t want to compete against its travel agents, the E-tailer built a customer-service infrastructure that allowed consumers to make purchases in several ways: they could buy from the company’s Web site, a 24-hour call center, or one of its bricks-and-mortar travel-agency franchises.

“It was a lofty goal,” concedes Wendy Close, research director at technology consultancy Gartner, who has studied the BBN rollout at some length. The return on ByeByeNow.com’s $8 million investment? Roughly one-third of the company’s 250 franchise travel agents used the CRM system. Says Close: “Other agents resisted the change.”

To fix the problem, BBN would have had to say bye-bye to more cash. But apparently its venture-capital backers balked at throwing good money after bad. “BBN was forced to shut down its call center,” notes Close, “and put the agency franchises on the block.”

Hardly a happy ending. But BBN is not alone. Monster.com, the online job-listings company, reportedly spent $1 million in 1998 on a CRM solution to increase sales-force efficiency by providing “immediate” access to information on potential customers.

“Immediate” was a bit optimistic — the system was reputed to be so sluggish that field personnel couldn’t download data on their laptops. This monstrous dilemma compelled the company to rebuild its entire CRM system from scratch, at a cost of a few million dollars more.

Ask Sales First

In fact, when it comes to CRM applications, it appears that many corporate managers are inclined to keep trying until they get it right. BMC Software Inc., for instance, launched two CRM initiatives that fizzled before finding its speed with a third.

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