Users First: the greatest “Duh!” moment in CRM history

At last week’s SugarCon conference in San Francisco, SugarCRM’s executives outlined a three-item set of ideals that their business would be built around. Two of them had to do with the idea of “openness” – an open ecosystem and an open cloud strategy.

Those two items capitalize on the cultural and technical underpinnings of the company and are unique attributes that differentiate SugarCRM. The third ideal, however, is one that other companies could and should adopt themselves: users first.

This is a painfully obvious concept: build your CRM applications for the people who use them. On its face, it makes sense. Ask anyone who’s not in the software industry who you should build your application around, and the user is the answer you’re most likely to get.

But look around at the major CRM applications. They’re NOT designed for the user. They’re targeted at the sales manager. They’re designed to empower managers with reporting, dashboards, and a host of other features designed to take the data entered into the CRM system and deliver management with a clear picture of what’s going on in his business’s sales department.

There’s one big problem here: unless you convince sales that they need to use the application, the data that management is presented with in those reports and dashboards will be incomplete at best and misleading at worst. So building CRM for the real users – the people in sales who enter the data – is the only way to really deliver any sort of value to the people CRM is currently designed for. If the application appeals to the user, the system will be updated more frequently and the manager will get a much more complete view of what’s going on.

Why is CRM designed for managers rather than the rank-and-file? That’s an easy one: software companies don’t need the rank-and-file to sign the contracts that buy their products – they need management’s signatures. Thus, for the last 20 years, we’ve seen lots of CRM applications whose principal value goes to management.  After all, the sales guys are hard to convince of the value of CRM, so why not bypass them and go directly to the management, who holds the fate of the CRM vendor’s sale in their hands, anyway? And if we’re appealing to management, then let’s emphasize the features and capabilities that appeal to management, too!

That’s great until the contracts are signed and the implementation’s in progress, and the buyer discovers that the sales team doesn’t understand the reason’s it’s being forced to adopt a new technology. When adoption rates stall and sales people learn ways to work around CRM, management discovers just how illusory the value of CRM can be.

And why do sales people rebel against using CRM? In a lot of cases it’s because they’re using software that doesn’t work the way they work. Too many applications are designed around processes that are software engineers’ ideas of what sales people actually want. They mimic structures and interfaces that software engineers are comfortable with. In some cases, vendors actually articulate the idea of the sales staff growing into a degree of familiarity with their interface. Here’s a hint: if the sales staff has to “grow into” anything, they aren’t going to use it, unless they’re coerced or threatened. And that’s really not the proper way to manage a sales team.

A few companies have caught on to this – Aplicor unveiled a very flexible interface a year ago that allows the user to set up his or her screens the way he or she wants without IT help, for instance. Now, SugarCRM’s declared its intention to design for the user first, starting with the new version, Sugar 6.5, which includes tools to enable better and quicker navigation and real-language search. The next year should see new and more inviting features and interface designs targeted at the people who put data into CRM.

Managers will always have to sell their sales staff on new technologies (heck, we’ve even written a white paper on 5 Ways to Increase CRM Adoption on Your Sales Staff). But the pitch is like any other sales pitch you make: it’s about what’s in it for them as sales people, not what’s in it for you as a sales manager. That fact is what makes the idea of “user first” both powerful and remarkably obvious.

4 thoughts on “Users First: the greatest “Duh!” moment in CRM history

  1. On reading your post I had a little chuckle – “users first” what a concept!

    But you’re right of course.

    Forgetting about CRM for a moment nobody likes using badly designed tools. When I’m doing a bit of DIY I always return to my favourite screwdriver, it fits my hand and is balanced – a pleasure to use.

    CRM applications are both similar and different to that screwdriver. Similar because I want it to work in harmony with me, but different because I know I can customise and configure and in many cases achieve a better than reasonable result.

    There are many good CRM applications that can be become great applications with appropriate investment in examining how the business works, and how individuals and teams work within that business.

    I guess I’m talking about the need for good workshops to ensure that whatever CRM application is selected, it must work in harmony with the business, its teams and its individuals.

    Of course if the product has a poor user interface to start with then there’s no salvation.

    But in my experience people who like using CRM have invested time in identifying their real world requirements and ensuring the application is tweaked to fit those needs.

    Perhaps I’ve strayed a little off point, but I believe the best user interface in the world won’t deliver unless the underlying product is easily and intuitively customisable and appropriate up-front effort is invested in workshops.

    • I agree on all counts, Noel! Here’s a metaphor I often use: I once saw a friend of mine trying to drive a nail with the rubberized handle of a large screwdriver. That was a perfectly fine tool – just not for the job it was being used for! My friend knew what she wanted to do, had a choice of tools – and still chose wrong. Of course, the error was hers – the tool vendor never suggested the screwdriver for this job, nor did the offer to customize the screwdriver to drive nails! – but without the basic knowledge of how to apply a tool properly you can never really get the most out of it. And CRM applications are tools, and nothing more.

      -Chris

  2. Pingback: Is the End User the End-All and the Be-All? | Levementum's Blog: "The Open Source Pragmatist"

  3. Pingback: “User first” doesn’t mean “sales managers last” « CRMOutsiders

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