May 18, 2018

3 key aspects of CRM success and how to cultivate them

Contrary to what most database vendors will tell you, picking a CRM is the least important part of being successful at tracking how your participants engage with your organization. The three key aspects of CRM success have more to do with organizational planning and staffing than they do with technology. All of them take investment of time and energy at all levels of your organization.

1. Culture of database use

What this looks like:

  • Staff across the organization understand the role of data in their work and to the organization overall.
  • Staff across the organization know how to use the database appropriately for their role.
  • Agreed-upon information is collected consistently and entered promptly, including changes to contact information and resolution of duplicate records.
  • When someone needs contact information or a report on the latest event attendance numbers, they go to the CRM—not to their Outlook or to their team member’s spreadsheet.
  • Problems are reported as they arise and resolved on a reasonable timeline.

2. Strong data strategy

What this looks like:

  • Our desired outcomes are driving data collection and analysis and not the other way around.
  • Clear communication on what is being collected and why.
  • There is a reason behind every piece of data collection.

3. Solid implementation

What this looks like:

  • Fields and other data structures exist to capture everything called for by the strategy.
  • The searches and reports called for by the strategy are available.
  • Processes for data entry, reporting, and updating are not experienced as frustrating or overly onerous by staff.

How to cultivate all three

Here are the most important practices that I have seen lead to success with CRMs; together, they address all three key facets in an interlocking way.

Assess your needs early and often

  • As a first step in change of data tools or features, ask the right questions:
  • What do we need to know about the people and organizations who participate in our programs in order to do this work?
  • What are the activities that our CRM needs to support?
  • What information is currently missing that would transform our work if we had it?
  • What information do we need to support daily tasks or to provide to our partners, members, donors, funders, and other stakeholders?

Make the time

  • Make sure that all data management duties (tracking problems and new feature requests, training staff and maintaining documentation, designing clear processes) are assigned to someone in the organization. This work can be shared among more than one person, though if the work is spread out, it is helpful to have a single point person who is in charge of coordination. Make it official: put it in job descriptions and workplans, and ensure that the time is truly available.
  • Include data entry and other related responsibilities appropriately in all job descriptions and workplans of all those who are expected to use the CRM.
  • Set clear and consistent expectations for data entry (backed up by workplanning).
  • Promote accountability with regular attention to database practices and outcomes in supervisory check-ins.
  • Make time at staff or team meetings to discuss database challenges, wish list items, and ideas. This is a great venue to discuss how any changes to program work should be reflected in the database/result in changes to it.

Support the database

  • Have a clear feedback loop for staff to report bugs and problems, and a plan in place for how they will be fixed; this can be as simple as a spreadsheet or as complex as a help desk staffed by a vendor or consultant.
  • Have a clear feedback loop to ensure that the database stays up to date as organizational work changes. Make sure that all staff know to talk to the database manager about changes to work that is tracked in the database.
  • Have a budget for support for and changes to the database, and a decision-making structure for how the money gets allocated if there are competing priorities.

Support your people

  • Train on both strategy and implementation—in the right order for your organization. Consider current organizational needs and challenges, along with what skills and expertise already exist on your staff. Some organizations need strategy first, and some need implementation first. There is no one-size-fits-all training plan.
  • Establish clear protocols for what needs to be entered, and document them, so that everyone knows what to collect and where to put it.
  • Include role-specific task training in all new staff orientations and make this training available to existing staff as a refresher.
  • Identify coworkers who are power users or both interested in and enthusiastic about the database as peer champions: enlist them to cheerlead for the importance of the database and to offer their support to others by answering questions and providing quick task-based demos on the fly as needed. (And be sure to recognize and plan for the impact this will have on their time by including it in their workplan!)
  • Provide training on any new features and practices.

Document wisely

  • Rely on standard user manual resources produced by the software vendor or community for documentation of basic operations; don’t spend time documenting simple things that are already in a user guide that someone else has made.
  • Document the workflows, processes, custom fields, and other elements of database use that are specific to your organization.
  • End-user documentation should be brief, task-based, and visually driven.

Watch out for these common pitfalls

When people revert to using spreadsheets or other tools to store information that belongs in the CRM, or put off database tasks in favor of things that may be more urgent but are less important, it undermines the viability of your CRM as a complete picture of organizational activity. Be proactive about troubleshooting and intervening as necessary. The solution will depend on the problem, but questions to ask include: Is training adequate? Does the CRM process need to be redesigned for greater efficiency? Does more time for database activities need to be built into workplans?

  • Be realistic about your organizational capacity. If a data collection or reporting process sounds like it would be too time consuming for staff, it probably is.
  • Don’t expect immediate results. CRMs can make your organization’s work easier, more efficient, and more effective—but making changes to the way you work is hard, and can make everyday tasks take longer until everyone is adjusted.
  • Software marketing materials often carry the message  “[name of software] will do [work you want done].” Remember that this is not exactly true: Software is a tool for humans to use while they do the work.

Always remember these basic truths

  • Database use is not about technology; it is about work practices and human habits.
  • No software is perfect. Any choice of tool requires tradeoffs. Even the best database is frustrating sometimes. Understanding this will make the inevitable struggles less painful.
  • Databases take time, energy, and money to use and manage well; the more complex the system, the more time, energy, and money it takes. Be realistic about what your organization can take on.
  • Not every organization needs or can handle a CRM. If you don’t have the capacity to maintain a CRM, a few well-chosen, carefully designed, and consistently updated spreadsheets can be a better choice.
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Lisa Jervis
Lisa Jervis has been building organizational infrastructure in social justice nonprofits for almost 20 years, combining administrative, operations, fundraising and program experience to bring a uniquely sharp diagnostic and strategic eye. She has successfully managed a wide variety of operations and technology projects in multiple organizations—from needs and tool assessment through implementation and training—including the deployment of cloud-based file server systems, the development of remote collaboration tool ecosystems, and CRM migrations. She holds a masters degree in Information Management and Systems from the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley. Her graduate work focused on information organization, work practice studies, computer-supported cooperative work, and user-centered design methods. Before attending the School of Information, she was the Finance and Operations Director at the Center for Media Justice, where she was responsible for (among other things) technology strategy, implementation, and training. She is the founding Editor and Publisher of Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, the founding board chair of Women in Media and News, a member of the advisory board of outLoud Radio, and an active leader in technology strategy and implementation at the East Bay Meditation Center.