CRM etiquette

CRM is really nothing more than etiquette, where one party is not you, but your company, codified in software. Here are some pointers to make it work.

When I hear "CRM", my eyes glaze over. Customer relationship management sounds sterile and complex

It sounds like a system that's going to put a heavy burden on my staff to implement and support.

I need to be more open-minded. CRM is really nothing more than etiquette, where one party is not you, but your company, codified in software.

Has your company made CRM work? YES Etiquette? Mais, oui! Etiquette is a set of rules and behavior defining how people can get along well together in society. No man is an island--and that's even more true for businesses. CRM merely implements the policies, procedures, and processes that keep your business and its customers on friendly terms.

Notice that what matters here is not the software--it's the process. You already have customer relationship management practices in place. Your first step should be to examine them closely. What works? What could be improved? What do your customers think is missing?

Do you need to turn those practices into a formal CRM system? To answer that, you have to calculate the costs you'll incur when you implement a system and the return you expect from it. Part of those costs will be inevitable changes in some of your business processes. Bear in mind you'll probably be hiring new people to staff the systems, and giving new responsibilities to current employees.

You can try to build your own CRM system in-house, but it's a lot of work. I suggest you buy a package or service instead. By buying the software, you get the benefit of the experience your vendor has had with every company it's worked with. You simply can't learn those lessons yourself in any reasonable period of time.

And CRM is a system you want to be sure to do right, because it's very visible. It's your company's interface with your customers, and if you alienate your customers, you're going to hear about it. That also means it's important to have broad support for your CRM project at the senior management level, because you're going to need the cooperation of many individuals within the organization to successfully implement the technology.

Perhaps most critical to the project's success is an experienced project manager. CRM systems can be among the most complex systems running within an IT organization. It's important to have someone who's experienced at managing multiple resources across diverse departments in charge of making it work.

Got your CRM system successfully deployed? Congratulations, but you're not done. You can't just install a CRM system and forget it. You have to measure its effectiveness and be prepared to maintain and enhance it as you learn what it can and can't do, and how that meshes with what your customers need.

Don't expect to see immediate changes for the better when your system goes live. The Gartner Group says you can expect it to take up to two years to overcome the cultural factors that hinder CRM success. Do expect to see progress during that time, however.

CRM is a tool of tremendous potential importance for an organization. I'm interested in hearing any lessons learned by organizations that have made it work.

What has your company learned from its CRM implementation? Talk Back below. Lee Schlesinger is executive editor of ZDNet's Business & Technology Channel.